The 23-and-under crowd was represented on almost every line that skated Thursday at Xcel Energy Center, and two players — one from each team — made their NHL debuts.
But while the Bruins rolled out a younger look with key veterans resting up for their first-round playoff matchup, most of the rookies and sophomores the Wild tabbed have been mainstays for weeks, some longer than that.
These players are expected to take on more responsibility in the Wild’s final game Saturday, like they did in the 3-0 loss to the Bruins in front of an announced crowd of 19,074 for the home finale, and this increased face time could be a preview of next season when the youngsters are poised to be a prominent population on the roster.
“You gotta give them the chance,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Teams turn over. We’re one of those teams that are in transition right now. I think these young guys deserve a chance to not only have a role but a full-time role on this team because they’re the lifeblood of it going forward.”
After adding center Nico Sturm to the mix, who was playing his first career game as was Boston’s Zach Senyshyn, the Wild had six players 23 years old or younger in its first post-elimination lineup.
Wingers Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin are the only ones under contract for next season, but the rest — Sturm, center Joel Eriksson Ek and wingers Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala — are restricted free agents.
Sturm hopes to use this late-season stint to help him prepare for training camp in September, when he’ll compete for a roster spot.
“He showed energy,” Boudreau said. “You could tell he can skate. I thought he made a couple of good plays.”
Trade pickups Donato and Fiala were added to enhance the Wild’s future with younger skill players. And Greenway, Kunin and Eriksson Ek have already skated as regulars.
“Just playing more games, playing more minutes, obviously your confidence grows,” Kunin said. “When you’re making plays out there, being put out in those situations, you just feel more involved in the game. Obviously, that makes things easier.”
Greenway has appeared the most, missing only one game for a refresher in the minors, and his 12 goals rank fourth in franchise history by a Wild rookie. Against the Bruins, he worked on the penalty kill (which went 2-for-2, while the power play was 0-for-1) after being used shorthanded sparingly earlier in the season.
Kunin took off when he was recalled in February after a demotion to the American Hockey League, scoring five of his six goals after that call-up. He’s suited up for all situations, and his versatility came in handy when Eriksson Ek went out because of an injury last month and Kunin shifted to center.
Eriksson Ek was another one who stood out when the Wild needed to fill a void, as his best play — arguably of his career — came once he was thrust into a top-nine spot when captain Mikko Koivu was sidelined because of a torn ACL and meniscus. His seven goals are a career high.
No one could get a puck by Boston goalie Jaroslav Halak, who made 26 saves for the Wild’s 10th shutout of the season. Wild backup Alex Stalock had 32 stops.
The Wild finished with a 16-18-7 record in games at the X.
Bruins winger Joakim Nordstrom buried a loose puck 8:21 into the second period, winger David Pastrnak scored on a one-timer at 17:15 of the third and Senyshyn chipped in an empty-netter with 2:09 remaining.
“There’s no bad players out there,” Sturm said. “Everything just happens a little bit faster.”
But the Wild’s youth is excited for the opportunity to be a catalyst for success next season.
“We gotta come in ready to be a big part,” Kunin said, “and help this team get to the playoffs.”