Wild fans waited four years for that “Mikael Granlund Moment.”
Selected ninth overall in the 2010 draft, Granlund didn’t come to the NHL right away. He stayed in Finland for more than two years. During the long wait, his legend only grew as he led his pro team to a league championship and his country to a world championship.
He was followed by paparazzi, had his face plastered onto murals and saw his lacrosse-style goal in the world championship captured on a postage stamp.
But when he finally made his NHL debut last season, many wondered what all the fuss was about. He looked weak on his skates and overmatched until the Wild mercifully sent him to the minors.
Some wrote him off as a bust; some wondered how he ever would function in the NHL.
Now they know.
After a breakout, 41-point sophomore season, Granlund scored the Wild’s biggest goal of the season and one of the prettiest in team history Monday night. The 22-year-old center used a combination of swift skating, strength, creativity and soft hands to put the Wild right back into its series with the Colorado Avalanche. Besides being only the fifth NHLer in 75 years to score his first career playoff goal in a 1-0 overtime game, Granlund’s goal gave the Wild a chance to even the first-round matchup at two games apiece Thursday night.
“He made a super play on that goal,” Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. “We didn’t get beat by a bad goal. We got beat by an outstanding play. He made a terrific play in the corner and even better to the front of the net. We have two guys in front of the net. He went through these guys.”
Granlund is soft-spoken and just goes about his business. He watches everything that goes on inside the locker room but very rarely pipes up. He doesn’t show a ton of emotion either, which is why so many teammates were shocked to see Granlund hop to his feet after scoring, sprint to the corner boards and leap face-first into the glass.
Asked if it was the biggest goal he ever has scored, Granlund, who has scored and created many big goals in and for his native Finland, said humorously, “Well, right now, it feels like a really big one.”
Defenseman Ryan Suter tried to get Granlund talking about his highlight goal in the players-only area of the locker room after the game.
“He’s like, ‘Eh,’ ” Suter said, laughing. “He doesn’t say much. Just nods his head. I told my little guy, ‘Go give him knuckles.’ [Granlund’s] just really shy and a really good kid.”
Granlund might be quiet, but he is determined to become a solid NHLer. After realizing what he needed to improve upon last season, Granlund returned to Finland last summer intent on fixing those areas.
The stories are endless about how many hours Granlund spent on the ice and in the gym. He got stronger through yoga and weightlifting. He worked on his feet by figure skating and power skating.
Besides his strong regular season, Granlund led bronze-medal-winning Finland in scoring during the Olympics and was named to the all-tournament team.
“I think people don’t always realize how young you are and how many years it takes to adjust,” Wild captain Mikko Koivu said. “Knowing him from the past, playing with him in international tournaments, I knew this would happen. Usually if you have the hockey sense, you have the skills and you have the right mindset for the game of hockey, usually you’ll be all right. I believed it.”
In the third period of the Wild’s Game 2 loss in Denver, coach Mike Yeo reunited the Zach Parise-Granlund-Jason Pominville line. Parise and Pominville assisted on Granlund’s Game 3 winner, and the three combined for 17 shots.
Pominville, Granlund’s linemate for most of the season, loves playing with him.
“He sees the ice really well, and I think our line just competes and works hard,” Pominville said. “As good as he is with the puck, he’s really good defensively. So most times we find a way to not spend a lot of time in our own zone. He can make plays, jump into holes, create a lot of things on his own.”
Granlund was just getting back in the swing of things during Games 1 and 2 after missing the final six regular-season games because of a head injury. The Avalanche challenged him physically, and he seemed tentative.
Monday, Granlund was anything but that. He courageously cut to the net often and was rewarded on the final play of the game.
“He deserves credit for that, for the quality of his play,” Roy said.