As soon as the pass landed on his stick, Kevin Fiala was striding toward the net, pulling the puck back just once before flinging it behind the goalie.
The finish ended up being the last goal the Wild would score in the regular season, capping off a 5-4 overtime victory in Anaheim on March 8. But the play meant more than that. It was also the latest exclamation point in Fiala’s emergence as a dynamic scorer.
“With that goal, you can kind of see the confidence,” said center Eric Staal, who didn’t play that game but still remembers watching the highlight. “It had been building for a while, but he was definitely that player that you wanted to have the puck there. That’s been kind of the theme for the last couple weeks before we ended up stopping, and you just want to pick that back up.”
Fiala was arguably the Wild’s most important second-half catalyst, helping drive the team toward playoff contention and, ultimately, a qualifying-round matchup against Vancouver next month as part of the NHL’s return.
As a result, the 23-year-old winger also has become the face of the aggressive, up-tempo pace the Wild is pursuing under recently minted head coach Dean Evason — a fitting partnership, because the two have history that precedes the Wild.
Kirill Kaprizov’s addition next season undoubtedly makes this playing style more sustainable, but so does Fiala’s contributions if he keeps delivering.
And whether he rediscovers that prowess could shape the Wild’s postseason potential.
“That will be the challenge,” Evason said. “Not that Kevin was flying under the radar, but people know he’s a high-offensive, talented guy on the Minnesota Wild, so teams are gonna concentrate on trying to shut him down. So that’ll be a real challenge for him to fight through adversity in all areas of the game.
“Is it unrealistic that he slips back in? I don’t think so because I think you’ve seen his work ethic. He’s likely been the guy that’s been on the ice the most. So he’s a rink rat. He’s a guy that just wants to get on the ice, and so honestly we don’t foresee him taking a step anywhere but forward.”
Before the season paused in mid-March, Fiala and the Wild were one of the NHL’s most offensive combos.
Over the course of the 12 games Evason coached after taking over from the fired Bruce Boudreau, the Wild scored a league-leading 43 goals and only two players in the NHL had more goals than Fiala in that span. Going back to his last 18 games, Fiala scored the second most in the league in that time with 18.
While his individual skills were on display — such as that overtime winner in Anaheim — Fiala has frequently pointed out the support he had on the ice was helpful in his surge, and the Wild was presenting a five-man attack in the offensive zone.
Not only were forwards chasing down pucks and closing gaps, but the defense joined the push — pressure that led to sustained quality time in the offensive zone. Considering the results — an 8-4 record — this approach worked without making the Wild too vulnerable defensively.
“It’s not going to be just Kevin that’s going to be the difference,” Staal said. “It’s going to be everybody collectively. But Kevin’s going to be a big part of that.”
Through two days of training camp, Fiala has worked with Staal and winger Jordan Greenway on what looks like the top line, and this could be the duo that helps Fiala’s speed and shot make a difference in the playoffs when time and space can decrease because of an uptick in physicality.
Already, Fiala envisions Staal and Greenway’s proficiency in the corners leading to cycle play — movement that could create scoring opportunities for Fiala.
“I feel I’m going to be the same player,” he said.
Evason is confident, too, and among Wild personnel, he might know Fiala best.
As the previous head coach of Nashville’s minor league team, Evason oversaw Fiala’s adjustment from Europe after the Predators drafted him in 2014 — a transition that included growing pains as the Switzerland native had to learn the North American game.
“I’ve had some tough fights with him, small fights,” Fiala said. “But in the end, I’m very happy that he showed me the way.”
Evason has enjoyed watching this evolution by Fiala, and their journey together is far from over. Both are now ushering the Wild into a new era in which each is key to the team’s success.
“To watch the process that he’s gone through, from when he first came over to where he is now, it’s exciting because of the work that he’s put in, the maturity that he’s gained, the teammate that he’s become, the player that he’s become — it’s all Kevin,” Evason said. “It’s within him.”