Souhan: In a flash, Wild gets big boost from Haula

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 6, 2014 - 1:03 AM

Erik Haula supplied just what the team always needs.

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Erik Haula, and Wild fans behind him, whooped it up after the ex-Gopher started the rout of Pittsburgh. C6

Photo: MARLIN LEVISON • Star Tribune,

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As expected, the highlight of the Wild-Penguins game on Saturday night was watching a kid who cut his teeth at Shattuck-St. Mary’s flying down the middle of the ice and producing what is known as a ‘‘goal-scorer’s goal.’’

What wasn’t expected was that the Shattuck product who scored was Erik Haula, not Sidney Crosby.

Early in the Wild’s 4-0 victory over Pittsburgh — long before the game became a rare laugher for the scoring-deprived Wild, and long before it became apparent that the Penguins had nothing more than a scarecrow playing goalie — Haula made the kind of end-to-end play his team hardly ever produces.

On his first shift, Haula picked up the puck behind the Wild goal, shuffled a pass to Jason Pominville, and made like a Dutch speed skater. By the time Haula hit mid-ice, Matt Moulson was flipping a tidy pass into the Penguins zone.

Haula, never slowing, picked up the puck behind the Pittsburgh defense and flicked it into the net.

Was the end-to-end rush a product of random hustle, or hockey intelligence? Sounds like both.

‘‘My first thought was to get my head up and keep my feet moving,’’ he said. ‘‘Then I tried to play to my strength. Pommer and Mouls made two great plays.’’

That’s the first sign the rookie is fitting in: He knows that real hockey players may refer to their peers only via cute, truncated nicknames.

‘‘I wanted to just get going and either Pommer would find me, or we’ll have a play with Mouls,’’ he said. ‘‘At worst, I’ll be in first on the forecheck.’’

When Mikael Granlund was lost to a head injury, Haula, the former Gopher the Wild drafted in the seventh round in 2009, became the team’s second-line center. Granlund has made himself one of the Wild’s more important players. He was replaced by a fellow Finn who made his way through the organization as a grinder.

In the past week, Haula has been more than that. He has scored in three consecutive games, assisting on the tying goal in Los Angeles, scoring the tying goal in Chicago and scoring the go-ahead goal on Saturday.

He never had scored in consecutive NHL games before this streak. Entering the game, he had a plus-minus rating of plus-11, one of the best margins on the team.

Haula is turning into the kind of player winning organizations find, and develop: a diamond in the slush.

‘‘What’s impressed me is that his game has looked the same whether he’s played against a fourth line and third ‘D’ pairing, or a second line and a second ‘D’ pairing,’’ Wild coach Mike Yeo said. ‘‘That’s going to be big for him going forward.’’

‘‘His speed makes such a difference for us,’’ Zach Parise said. ‘‘When you have a fast guy like that with hockey sense …’’

Earlier this season, Yeo said of Haula: ‘‘It’s one thing to skate fast. It’s another thing to think fast. That’s what I like about him.’’

Seventh-round draft picks don’t receive any favors. Haula earned his way into the NHL.

‘‘I’ve always had the mentality of just going to work every day and keeping my head up and doing everything I can,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a process. The route is different for everyone. This route has worked for me. Just by sticking with it and taking small steps and not being too greedy and doing the right things, that’s been the key for me.’’

If Granlund returns, Haula could add speed and punch to the third or fourth line. If Granlund doesn’t return, Haula will be playing alongside Pommer and Mouls in the playoffs.

‘‘It’s really exciting,’’ Haula said. ‘‘It’s awesome to play. I’m playing with two great players, and they definitely help. I’m just trying to do everything I can to fill in that role.

‘‘Hopefully, Granny comes back and helps our team significantly. It’s nice to know with the injuries, we’re still able to go out and play against the top teams.’’

 

Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

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