For a moment, he looked more like a point guard than a hockey player, as if he were controlling the puck with calloused fingertips instead of a curved stick.
Kevin Fiala gathered the puck near mid-ice and cruised over the blue line. Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis flopped to block a shot that Fiala had only begun to choreograph.
The Wild’s rising star deked and faked and noodled and finally pulled the puck back in like a kid reeling in his first sunfish. Then he flicked it into the top of the net, casually as placing a coffee mug on a shelf.
In basketball, they call such a move “breaking ankles.” In hockey, it’s more like busting blades. While setting a franchise record with his fifth consecutive multipoint game, Fiala continues to elevate his team the way he elevates his franchise-changing shots.
His goal was the team’s second of the night as the Wild beat Nashville 3-1 at Xcel Energy Center to take another step in its sprint toward the playoffs.
“I saw him lay down and I tried to delay, delay, delay,” Fiala said. “Then I shot it.”
A hundred NHLers could make the shot; few would have the control and confidence to break down a defender and delay, delay, delay, while thousands screamed. Confidence remains the ultimate performance enhancer.
“It’s incredible, it really is,” interim coach Dean Evason said. “His hands, his vision. He’s clearly feeling it.”
In the latest entrant to the category of strange but true local sports happenings, this was a big game. No, really.
The Wild started the season by playing like it didn’t care. The team traded one of its most talented scorers, fired its proven coach and asked its franchise player and its captain to waive no-trade clauses.
The players have spent all season mimicking a losing team, but entered Tuesday night’s game against Nashville only one point behind the Predators for a playoff berth.
Winnipeg beat Buffalo 3-1 on Tuesday, meaning the Wild remains one game out of a playoff spot behind the Jets and Vancouver. If Fiala and the Wild keep playing this way, Evason and Alex Stalock will be unlikely playoff entrants.
“He’s magic, man,” Stalock said of Fiala. “He gets it and he’s the guy where fans are starting to get out of their seats now. Not only can he do it — the moves, and beat a defenseman — but the puck finds the back of the net. That’s not easy to do.”
Fiala looked dangerous all game. Most endearing, he continued to play like hockey is a fun sport instead of a prison sentence, offering wry smiles on the ice when he missed a chance.
In the second period, when Marcus Foligno drew a penalty while driving the net, Fiala smiled and gave him a hug.
Fiala has 12 goals and 22 points in his past 15 games. He has scored in five consecutive games, tying his career-best goal-scoring streak.
This is a kid who didn’t need the opponents’ assistance in losing the puck last year, when he looked more manic than magical.
Fiala doesn’t just look assured; he looks relaxed, as if dominating the league is what he had in mind all along. He even picked the puck off the stick of Preds center Calle Jarnkrok while backchecking in the second period.
Early in the third, Zach Parise stuffed in a rebound to make it 3-0, giving Fiala his second point of the night.
“He’s on fire right now,” Parise said. “I mean, nice goals, too, not my kind of goals, but nice goals. He’s feeling it, and I think this last I don’t know five, six, seven games, he’s just taken off. It’s been so big for our team.”
If this were the usual group of Wild grinders, I’m not sure you’d want to see them in the playoffs.
Fiala has changed the Wild as a team, and as an entertainment option.
Who wouldn’t want to see this version of Fiala in a playoff game at the X?
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org