The NHL owners finally ended their lockout of the players last Jan. 12. The Wild opened the season seven days later with a 4-2 victory over Colorado.
There was an overflow crowd announced at 19,298 that night in St. Paul. The Wild played a confused first period, then came out flying.
There were two power-play goals from the top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley, and as Mike Russo added in his Star Tribune report: “… Finnish phenom Mikael Granlund scored his first NHL goal.”
The low-key Granlund said in the postgame locker room: “What a great feeling [to play in the NHL]. I enjoyed every moment of it.”
Granlund earned extra points from coach Mike Yeo when the 20-year-old rookie went to the ice to block a shot with the score at 3-2.
“There’s a kid stepping in and saying, ‘You know what, guys? I want to be part of this, and I’ll pay a price for you guys,’ ” Yeo said.
When all involved have waited 3½ months for a season to start, people can get carried away with opening-night action. Granlund played in 26 of the remaining 47 regular-season games and scored one more goal. He was sent back twice to Houston.
Thirty-seven weeks after his first NHL game, Granlund will be in the lineup for a second Wild opener tonight vs. the Los Angeles Kings. He will share the third line with veterans Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke, and will be at right wing to open his second season rather than at center.
The message from the Wild has been that Granlund has gained strength, that his skating is improved and that he outplayed Jason Zucker in training camp and exhibitions to earn this spot.
A popular theory for Granlund being overmatched last season was that he had a tough time adjusting to a traditional North American ice sheet, rather than the larger Olympic rink.
That theory was repeated by a former NHL player on Wednesday morning, as Granlund and the Wild went through an hourlong practice at Xcel Energy Center.
“That’s 3,000 more square feet of ice that Granlund was playing on in Finland,” the ex-player said. “That’s a lot of extra room for a smaller, quicker player.”
It’s a theory that doesn’t work for one person important to Granlund’s future: Chuck Fletcher, the Wild general manager.
“If he had played most of his games in Sweden, I might go along with the idea that adjusting to the NHL ice sheet was a big problem,” Fletcher said. “In Finland, they play a lot of games on our ice sheet. We saw Mikael play a lot of games in a regulation rink, and he was very good.
“His adjustment is not to the size of the rink; it’s to the NHL game. He’s had to get stronger physically, to be stronger on his skates.”
There was no denial with Granlund — no thought that he was a “phenom” done wrong. He understood that his play was the problem, not opportunity.
“I knew when I went back home that I had to get better,” Granlund said. “We had a good group that worked out every day.”
The workouts in Finland involved skating in the morning, running, weightlifting and more skating in the afternoon. There appear to be a few pounds of muscle added to his frame, officially listed at 5-10 and 186 pounds.
The assumption when you hear about an undersized forward compiling numbers in Finland or Sweden is that he must be a jet on his skates. Not so with Granlund.
“If you race 150 feet in a straight line, Mikael isn’t going to beat everyone,” Fletcher said. “But he’s very quick, in and out of traffic, and his vision is tremendous.”
Fletcher was asked what he expects from Granlund in this full season — a reborn phenom or a longer adjustment to the NHL?
“That’s what we’re going to find out,” Fletcher said. “Mikael has talent, he’s 21, and we know that those guys can get better. If he was 24, 25 and we were still seeing what happened last season, there would be a concern.
“At 21, I’m confident we’ll see a lot of improvement this season … that Mikael is going to be a productive player for us.”