In a shocking scene, Erik Christensen smiled in practice last week. Afterward, he even joked around with Wild teammates.
This normally wouldn't be headline material, but with Christensen, a self-deprecating player tormented by his own expectations, it is.
Take a look at Christensen's face, and you can tell exactly how his day is going. For the first five weeks after being traded to the Wild from the New York Rangers, he looked miserable.
That's because he was, overwhelmed by the pressure he put on himself to come to Minnesota and contribute immediately after a rocky season on Broadway.
"I wanted so bad to make an impact right way and when it didn't happen, I got very frustrated," said Christensen, who had no points and was minus-13 in his first 15 games. "I'm the kind of person that critiques myself with everything and every part of the game, and I'm harsh with myself sometimes."
Christensen, 28, has dealt with the adverse effects his entire pro career.
"I think about it a lot and I try to figure it out," he said.
Christensen said he believes it stems from his junior days with Kamloops of the Western Hockey League. In 2002-03, Christensen led the league in scoring with 54 goals and 108 points in 67 games -- more than future NHL notables like Ryan Getzlaf, Tomas Fleischmann and Joffrey Lupul.
The previous June, the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Christensen in the second round.
"So you kind of feel there's no reason why you can't take it to the next level," Christensen said. "When I was in Pittsburgh, the years after I was drafted, they got [Evgeni] Malkin, [Sidney] Crosby and [Jordan] Staal. Playing behind those guys, I just didn't develop the way I wanted to, but I still felt like there was no reason I couldn't score like those guys."
He never did. That disappointment has weighed down Christensen for years. His career highs are 18 goals and 33 points in 2006-07.
"I get incredibly frustrated sometimes when I feel like I'm doing all the right things and it doesn't happen," Christensen said. "It's my personality. I have to really watch how I come off."
Feeling better about his play
Tuesday night, Christensen will face the Rangers, who scratched him for six consecutive weeks before trading him in February. While he hasn't scored in three consecutive games, Christensen recently scored four goals in four games, is more assertive all over the ice and is feeling more comfortable in his new setting.
Thinking it would take a handful of games to chip off the rust, Christensen never envisioned in his worst nightmare it would take weeks.
"And then when it wasn't coming, I started to press and cheat and tried to create things that weren't there," Christensen said.
He met with Wild coach Mike Yeo, who knows Christensen from their Pittsburgh days. Yeo said, "'This isn't you,' and I knew it wasn't me either."
Now? Christensen feels "a lot more loose and less uptight ... once I just sort of chilled out and took a breather and just focused on a few little things instead of, 'What am I going to do to score tonight?' It's the wrong attitude to have."
'I don't want to be a one-trick pony'
Christensen does routinely score in the shootout, where he's 3-for-5 with the Wild and 27-for-51 in his career. That's the sixth-most shootout goals in the NHL, and his .529 shooting percentage is best by any NHLer with at least 39 attempts. He says he has four moves and chooses from that arsenal before his attempt depending on the circumstances.
But even here, Christensen tears himself to shreds.
"I'm proud of what I've done in the shootout, but it's always stunk that's sort of what I'm known for," Christensen said. "I don't want to be a one-trick pony. I wish I was known as a goal scorer on the ice or a point guy on the ice.
"I've tried desperately to be that guy."
Christensen is on his fourth team in four years and would love to stop bouncing around. He can become a free agent this summer if unsigned by Minnesota, which seems likely because of Christensen's inconsistency and the Wild's desire to fill holes with upgrades and prospects.
"I don't know what's going to happen next year," Christensen said. "I believe in my heart that I can play in the league. I'll just try to keep scoring some goals and whatever happens next year, that'll take care of itself."