Bumped to the fourth line with Martin Hanzal’s acquisition and getting squeezed even tighter with Joel Eriksson Ek’s return from Sweden, forward Erik Haula knows his spot in the Wild lineup no longer is guaranteed.
In fact, if Jason Zucker hadn’t been sidelined because of a lower-body injury the past two games, there’s a chance Haula would have been scratched for the first time this season Saturday in Nashville.
That’s partly why Haula was motivated to perform well Sunday night when he saw he was assuming Zucker’s top-six spot on the left side of Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund against the Colorado Avalanche.
“Getting a chance to play up with those guys, I was going to make sure I was going to have a really good game. Just a little extra motivation,” said Haula, who scored the winning goal, had an assist and four shots and drew a power play against Colorado. “It just felt natural right away. I’ve been trying to play as well as I can with whatever I’ve got.
“This was an opportunity to play on that level and show that I can play there. I just wanted to play a complete game.”
In the past three games, Haula, a natural centerman, played left wing twice and doesn’t know exactly what he thinks of the position change yet. It depends on the opponent and the type of game, he said. Against Colorado, Haula felt like he had the puck a lot more than his previous occasions at wing.
“I thought that was the best game he’s played in a long time,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “He had energy throughout the night. That was great. It was great to see because we need that kind of energy and that kind of speed going forward.”
This has been a frustrating past month for Haula.
He lost the third-line center spot when Hanzal was acquired from Arizona, hadn’t scored a goal since Feb. 27 until ending a 17-game drought Sunday and hasn’t been delighted about his ice time decreasing.
“They haven’t talked to me. There hasn’t been any communication,” Haula said. “It’s basically, ‘You’re playing wing or center,’ no conversation really about positives or negatives, more so team stuff. I come to the rink and try to play the best of my ability with what I get, and [Sunday] was nice.”
The Zucker-Koivu-Granlund line was put together Nov. 25 and was the league’s highest-scoring trio for several weeks. Recently though, the line has dried up. Zucker has one point in his past 11 games. Koivu has two goals in his past 28 games, although he has 17 assists in that span.
Could Haula be a solution to help heat the line up after five combined points Sunday?
“He could be,” Boudreau said. “We’ve got a multitude of potential centers. If Erik’s playing like that [at left wing], I think he’s pretty valuable, more than a guy who’s playing eight minutes or nine minutes a night [as fourth-line center].
“Quite frankly, for him, when Marty came in and bumped him back, it’s a little bit of drop in ice time. It takes a hit on your confidence a little bit. [Sunday] goes a long way toward hopefully getting his confidence back to where it can be. As far as him playing that position, he played pretty well. But like I’ve said before, anybody can do anything once.”
Back to Iowa
With goalie Devan Dubnyk slated to start Tuesday’s home finale against Carolina, Alex Stalock was reassigned to AHL Iowa and Darcy Kuemper, scratched in the past three games, will back up.
Stalock went 1-1 in two starts, gave up three goals and had a .944 save percentage. Kuemper is expected to start Saturday’s finale at Arizona. The Wild wants Stalock to stay sharp, hence the reassignment, because he very well could be the No. 2 in the playoffs and start any game Dubnyk won’t.
Dubnyk, by the way, retired the green mask he started wearing in February for green jersey nights and went back to the mask he normally wears with red and white jerseys during Sunday’s win.
“I don’t like to be [superstitious], but [the green mask] had a tough goals-against average,” Dubnyk kidded. “It’s going to look good on my wall.”
Besides Eric Staal being honored before Tuesday’s game for playing his 1,000th game last month, former North Stars Don Beaupre, Neal Broten, Jack Carlson and Brad Maxwell will sign autographs from 6 to 7 p.m. on the main concourse at Section 123.
The Wild also will wear 1967 replica North Stars jerseys during pregame warmups. Some jerseys will be given away to fans selected randomly during the game; others will be available on NHL Auctions to benefit the Wild Foundation and Minnesota NHL Alumni Association.