It’s almost as if Nino Niederreiter loves his face being used as a punching bag.
There’s no statistical category for it, but if you’ve watched the Wild through the first 35 games of this season, the young forward clearly leads the team in goalmouth scrums.
Niederreiter frequently drives the net, gets into the opposing goaltenders’ workspace and tries to make their life difficult, whether it be by driving with the puck or going there to establish position, create screens and look for deflections.
That’s exactly how “El Niño” scored the tying goal in the Wild’s 2-1 shootout victory over Colorado on Saturday. He won a puck battle along the boards, made a beeline for the blue crease, parked himself in front of Semyon Varlamov and deflected Ryan Suter’s shot in the final minutes to force overtime.
Niederreiter, 21, drives opposing defensemen and forwards batty and often is double- or triple-teamed after whistles with punches and face-washes and hogties and cross-checks.
“It’s something that everyone on our team loves about him and respects about him,” center Kyle Brodziak said. “He goes to the net hard and with a purpose, and if he’s going to get pushed, he’s not taking it. He’s going to push a guy back.
“He makes the other defensemen mad at him, and the purpose is to get them off their game or draw a penalty. It’s awesome to see. Everyone notices it, and it’s something we love about him.”
Part of his game
Pushing, shoving and being smacked in the face is not fun, but it’s almost as if it’s Niederreiter’s own brand of smelling salt. You can see it in his face. These post-whistle scrums wake him up and get him engaged in the action.
He even flies in there against pals. On his first shift in Anaheim last week, Niederreiter went to the net hard and hit the brakes, just to say hello — so to speak — to his Swiss countryman, Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller, with a snow shower to the face.
These ensuing pushing/punch-fests with defensemen often include Niederreiter wearing an antagonistic grin, which seems to infuriate opponents even more.
“It’s part of my game now,” Niederreiter said. “To be honest, just go in there and just stay there. Other teams don’t want to see any players besides their guys there, so it helps your team to go there. You could draw penalties out of it or get a dirty goal.”
Still, it always seems to be Niederreiter in the center of every goalmouth scrum. Asked if he chirps or if it’s maybe that mischievous grin that infuriates opponents, Niederreiter said, smiling, “I never trash talk, but for some reason, they just don’t really like me being in front of their net. But that’s the area where you score goals in this league. So I’m going to be there as much as I can.”
Stirring the pot
Wild coach Mike Yeo loves that Niederreiter goes to the net and actually stops there. Too many players — young and old — do fly-bys where they go the net and depart, maybe because of the wear and tear that comes with being smacked around by defensemen.
“I started doing this in junior,” Niederreiter said of his successful 77-goal, 130-point-in-120-game career with Portland in the Western Hockey League. “I used to go to the net and nobody cared. In the NHL, they hate it. I thought I was going to get killed in St. Louis a few weeks ago.”
The Wild acquired Niederreiter, the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft, on draft day in 2013 when it sent Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round pick to the Islanders for Niederreiter. Niederreiter grew displeased with his treatment on Long Island. He played the fourth line in 2011-12, griped and wasn’t invited to training camp in January despite a strong first half with Bridgeport of the American Hockey League.
Niederreiter’s Switzerland-based agent Andre Rufener requested a trade and Islanders General Manager Garth Snow obliged. Last week in Anaheim, Rufener met with Wild GM Chuck Fletcher to begin establishing a relationship.
Niederreiter’s entry-level contract expires after this season, although Fletcher said the two sides didn’t start negotiations yet.
In 64 games with the Islanders, Niederreiter scored two goals and an assist. In 35 games with the Wild in more of a top-six role, Niederreiter is tied for fourth with six goals and fifth with 16 points.
Yeo is pleased with Niederreiter’s defensive-game improvement, and the Wild believes Niederreiter will evolve into a pure goal scorer.
At 6-2, 209 pounds, he’s a big, strong kid with what Yeo calls a “silly hard shot” who plays a north-south style of game. He has learned to compete harder in these high-traffic areas and protect the puck better along the wall.
“He’s been a goal scorer his whole life,” Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr said. “As he adjusts to the league and learns to buy space, he’ll score. [Mikael] Granlund’s injury really hurt that line because he’s the creative guy in the middle and Nino supports a quality center because he gets to the net and the way he shoots the puck is scary.
“I think we’re going to see a guy that keeps getting better, and as he becomes a little more selfish with his game, he’ll score goals in this league.”