Erik Haula had nothing but open ice and a loose puck standing between him and Chicago goalie Corey Crawford.

As he corralled the puck deep inside Chicago’s zone on a shorthanded breakaway, Haula lined up his target. Closer, closer, closer until, at the last second, hustling defenseman Duncan Keith lunged with his stick from behind and hooked Haula’s right wrist.

That quick jab caused Haula to lose control of the puck, which slid harmlessly out of Crawford’s reach.

No shot, no penalty, no way.

“I just kept thinking in my head, ‘Hopefully I get another chance to bury one,’ ” Haula said.

He did, and Haula made sure his second chance ended with a better result.

The Wild’s rookie center knocked in a goal on a give-and-go with Justin Fontaine early in the third period to break a logjam and launch the Wild to a 4-0 victory against the Blackhawks in Game 3 on Tuesday night.

Haula said he felt no hesitation when he saw the puck floating his direction.

“I was going to smack it,” he said. “Thankfully, it went in.”

That Haula broke a scoreless tie and made himself a disruptive presence all game came as little surprise. He’s been one of the Wild’s best players the first three games of this best-of-seven series.

Not bad for a guy who started the season in the minors and entered his first postseason as a fourth-liner who averaged 10 minutes of ice time during the regular season.

The former Gopher has steadily earned more responsibility, playing time and trust of the Wild coaching staff to the degree that he now looks like an important cog in the team’s nucleus of young talent.

Haula was elevated to the checking line in the Colorado series, remains a regular on the penalty kill and has seen his ice time increase by nearly four minutes in the playoffs.

He was terrific again in Game 3, using his blazing speed to create turnovers and keep pressure on the Blackhawks.

“I like a speedy game,” he said.

In a postseason in which several Wild veterans have slumped and/or disappeared, Haula’s emergence has created optimism within the organization. Given an expanded role, the 23-year-old from Finland has produced.

Haula exhibited a scorer’s mentality in college but he’s also earned Yeo’s trust by being responsible defensively. He set a team rookie record for plus-minus rating (plus-14) this season.

Haula has played on the second, third and fourth lines this season. He filled in for an injured Mikael Granlund late in the regular season and collected seven points in seven games.

Yeo gave Haula added responsibility in Game 3 of the first series after Avalanche rookie sensation Nathan MacKinnon skated circles around the Wild. Haula drew the MacKinnon matchup in home games because, as the Wild’s fastest skater, he had the best chance of keeping pace with the Avs’ human blur.

“His speed helps him a lot,” captain Mikko Koivu said.

Zach Parise said he’s seen more than one opponent caught off-guard by Haula’s speed. That happens occasionally with younger players who haven’t established a reputation.

“All of sudden, you’re trying to check him and he’s three strides behind you,” Parise said. “It’s been good for us because we want to play with that speed. It’s awesome. The way he skates is impressive.”

Haula reached that top gear to create his breakaway in the first period. He still wasn’t sure immediately after the game how much Keith’s hook affected his ability to take a shot.

“Everything happens at such a fast pace,” he said. “Maybe he got a little smack on my hand and maybe I lost it because of that. Or maybe I just lost it.”

That play looked like it might become a defining moment in the game. But given another chance, Haula didn’t lose it when it mattered most.


Chip Scoggins