Finns are guiding the way for Wild in playoffs

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 26, 2014 - 12:39 PM

– The Wild’s top three centers during the NHL playoffs are proud Finns, but as players, they have very different skill sets.

Mikko Koivu is big, powerful and if you make him angry, he’s liable to give you a glare that’ll make you sprint for the bench.

Mikael Granlund is small, slippery and has the vision of an eagle.

Erik Haula is fast, versatile and can catch opponents off-guard in any situation.

Yet their intangibles are almost identical.

“They all bring different things, but they’re ultracompetitive,” said former Wild and Colorado Avalanche forward Andrew Brunette, Koivu’s former linemate who double-dips as an adviser to the Wild’s front office and coaching staff. “Finns are very inside-driven. I’ve played with some intense ones, and I’ve seen some laid-back ones. Once the puck drops, they’re all basically the same — these guys, especially.”

One big reason the Wild pulled out victories in Games 3 and 4 to turn the Western Conference quarterfinals against the Avalanche into a best-of-three series is the play up the middle by Koivu (Turku, Finland), Granlund (Oulu, Finland) and Haula (Pori, Finland).

The three were outstanding during the homestand as the Wild won consecutive games to put the pressure squarely on the young Avalanche’s shoulders heading into Saturday’s fifth game.

Koivu, third in the NHL this postseason with a .644 faceoff winning percentage, was stellar defensively and a beast on the forecheck. Granlund scored Game 3’s overtime winner, and in Game 4 assisted on a goal, won eight of 12 faceoffs, drew three penalties and blocked three shots in the final minute of a one-goal victory. And Haula was coach Mike Yeo’s choice to hop over the boards virtually any time Avs young star Nathan MacKinnon did.

MacKinnon, who had seven points in Games 1 and 2, had no points and three shots combined in Games 3 and 4.

“The one thing that’s consistent for every Finn that I’ve ever worked with is pride,” Yeo said. “They play with an awful lot of pride. Winning is extremely important to them, and they bring that passion to the ice. Part of that winning attitude is every play they take pride in making it happen, whether it’s a blocked shot or a faceoff or shutting somebody down or whatever they can to help their team win.”

Doing it all

That was especially demonstrated by Granlund on Thursday.

When he was drafted ninth overall in 2010, Granlund had the reputation of being a brilliant playmaker, but one who maybe would stray toward the perimeter. He has proved to be anything but a perimeter player in Minnesota.

He’ll throw his body into harm’s way, whether that be in the dirty areas in the corner or in front of the net or whether that be blocking 90 miles-per-hour slapshots with the game on the line.

“You try to do all you can for the win,” Granlund said nonchalantly minutes after fans went wild for his gritty final shift.

“When Granlund blocks four shots, two of them with no stick, every time he was blocking one the building was going louder and louder,” Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. “I think he would like to block six, seven, eight, nine, 10 more shots.”

Rough stuff

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  • Mikael Granlund attempted a shot on Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov in the first period of Game 4. One big reason the Wild pulled out victories in Games 3 and 4 to turn the Western Conference quarterfinals against the Avalanche into a best-of-three series is the play up the middle by Mikko Koivu (Turku, Finland), Granlund (Oulu, Finland) and Erik Haula (Pori, Finland).

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