BUFFALO, N.Y. – Wild defenseman Matt Dumba frequently sports the shirt, and winger Luke Kunin also had it on Tuesday as he roamed the visiting locker room inside KeyBank Center.
It's a picture of teammate Joel Eriksson Ek pedaling an assault air bike with the caption "Mr. September," a nod to his 3-minute, 55-second performance on the two-mile bike test in training camp — the best result on the Wild.
"He comes in ready to go," Kunin said. "He's just a beast."
And reporting in tiptop shape seems to have set the tone for Eriksson Ek's start to the season, as the center continues to merit and handle an increased workload as the team gets deeper into its schedule.
"It comes into play every game," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I know that he can withstand the heavy minutes."
Eriksson Ek logged a career-high 20:04 Saturday in the 4-3 overtime loss to the Hurricanes at Xcel Energy Center, and the ice time was meaningful.
Not only did he put a season-high six shots on net, with one of those nearly breaking the 3-3 stalemate in the third period, but Eriksson Ek also helped snuff out a pair of Carolina power plays by skating 1:50 shorthanded. Because he's able to recover quickly, Boudreau said, he can use Eriksson Ek at the start of the kill and at the end — which he did Saturday.
This defensive awareness has become Eriksson Ek's calling card since he debuted with the Wild in 2016, but the jump in opportunity is leading to more chances offensively and previewing an all-around approach that is putting Eriksson Ek's line with Kunin and winger Jordan Greenway in key situations. In Tuesday's 4-1 victory against the Sabres, Eriksson Ek assisted on winger Zach Parise's game-opening goal — his fifth assist in the past eight games.
"He's a workhorse, for sure," Kunin said. "He's never making the wrong play. He's always on the right side of things and if you're messing up, I feel like he's always got your back in a way and helping. He's always on the right side of pucks, making the right plays and making our job a lot easier."
Time has spurred this evolution, with Eriksson Ek looking more and more comfortable as he's gained experience.
"There's a lot of difference from Sweden," said Eriksson Ek, whom the Wild drafted 20th overall in 2015. "The rink is smaller, and there's a lot more games [in the NHL]. You learn from playing. I feel like I'm still learning every day and just try to play every game as good as I can."
Last Friday, Boudreau said the Wild will "probably want to run with [Devan Dubnyk] a little bit" after the goaltender gave up two goals in each of his previous two games.
"He's starting to play better," Boudreau said at the time. "We want to get him in a routine where he can gain some confidence."
But after the Wild fell to the Hurricanes, the only lineup change the team made Tuesday against the Sabres was in net — subbing backup Alex Stalock in for Dubnyk.
"I have reasons," Boudreau said. "It has nothing to do with last game or anything else. I'm looking at the schedule and everything else and thought this was a good place for Al."
After returning home from Buffalo, the Wild hosts the Avalanche on Thursday before traveling east again to start a tour of Boston, New York and New Jersey in four nights. The latter two games are a back-to-back.
"I just didn't want the first game that [Stalock's] playing to be in New York or New Jersey," Boudreau said.
This was Stalock's first start since he was pulled in San Jose on Nov. 7 after giving up four goals on 12 shots.
Wild head equipment manager Tony DaCosta worked his 2,000th pro regular-season game Tuesday night.
The game was the 1,458th DaCosta worked with the Wild; before joining the organization, DaCosta was part of the Jets/Coyotes franchise.