DALLAS – Coach Bruce Boudreau has trusted Joel Eriksson Ek in critical defensive situations for a while now, with the third line he’s centered a go-to trio for the team when it’s protecting a lead or trying to shut down the opposition’s best players.
But now Eriksson Ek isn’t just making a difference in front of the Wild’s net.
He’s also wreaking havoc at the other end, with his statement game of the season coming Friday. That’s when he polished off a three-goal comeback by scoring the game-winner with 27 seconds to go – a 3-2 thriller for the Wild that put the team just two points back of a playoff spot.
“I'm learning every day,” Eriksson Ek said. “I feel more comfortable now than I did before. That's helped me.”
Before stunning the Stars with a wraparound goal, Eriksson Ek put the rally in motion in the second period by opening the scoring for the Wild.
The night finished as his first multi-goal game of his career, and it made sense why he was on the ice in the final minute when the Wild had an offensive-zone faceoff. He’s tough to pry away from the puck, with his tenacious style a challenge for defenders to contain.
“He’s grown and matured,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Last year, he got a lot more responsibility the last half of the year. And this year, he’s continued not only to gain more responsibility [but] want it and accept it.”
Eriksson Ek wasn’t the only player who made an impact Friday.
Forwards Kevin Fiala and Ryan Donato continued to stand out, with Fiala recording his fifth point (an assist) in his last three games and Donato scoring the game-tying goal.
Even before the tally, Donato was buzzing around the puck – taking advantage of a move up the lineup to the second unit after previously working as a fourth liner when he hasn’t been a healthy scratch.
His goal was a harmless-looking throw on net from along the boards, but it caught goalie Ben Bishop off the guard and paved the way for a battle-royal third.
“You think of all the chances that we’ve had, that I’ve had, and that’s the one that goes in,” Donato said. “I’ve had a couple breakaways, and that’s just the way the game goes sometimes. For me, I just want to keep finding the puck and contribute to the team, and hopefully the coaches see that.”
Against the Stars, after assisting on Donato’s goal, Fiala was shifted to the first line to add more speed to the unit.
“I think the change was good,” Boudreau said.
This was also a feel-good showing for winger Jordan Greenway, who helped set up the game-winner by fighting for the puck along the boards – effort that led to the puck eventually squeaking free and working its way to Eriksson Ek.
Greenway also tussled with Dallas’ Corey Perry, showing much more engagement and when the 6-foot-6 winger does that, he’s a much more effective player.
“You look at the size of them, they’re pretty hard to contain when they’re playing well,” Boudreau said of Greenway’s line with Eriksson Ek and winger Marcus Foligno. “... I thought Marcus was very powerful and especially the last shift, I thought Greenway proved his size by holding the puck I think in for 32 seconds on the boards there before they got loose there and scored.”
Goalie Devan Dubnyk was also key for the Wild, making 31 saves in his first start since last Saturday.
Arguably his best came in the third period on the penalty kill, a blocker stop on the Stars’ Radek Faksa that kept the game tied at 2.
“Those are fun to make,” Dubnyk said. “… You just want to be patient. I felt pretty patient on my edges the whole time. … I just tried to get over as quick as I could. It's certainly a good feeling when you feel it hit the middle of your blocker.”