A day before the Wild’s playoff opener, Joel Eriksson Ek conceded there is one area in which he is woefully unprepared. Asked if he will start growing a playoff beard, the rookie center said he doubted that would happen, as a smile crept across his baby-smooth face.
The Wild is hoping that’s the only part of the postseason where he won’t be able to keep up. Both Eriksson Ek and defenseman Christian Folin are NHL playoff newbies, guys who have never tasted the pressure and intensity of the Stanley Cup chase. That is expected to change Wednesday, when the Wild starts its first-round series against the Blues at Xcel Energy Center.
Folin, 26, has been a frequent presence on the Wild’s blue line this season, playing in a career-high 51 games. Eriksson Ek, 20, started the season with the Wild and returned last month after spending the bulk of the season in the Swedish Elite League.
Their veteran teammates said Tuesday they expect Folin and Eriksson Ek will adapt well to playoff hockey. After hearing everyone else telling stories about it, both of the newcomers are eager to step into the unknown.
“Of course, it’s going to be fun,” said Eriksson Ek, who finished the regular season with three goals and four assists in 15 games. “I really don’t know what to expect. I’ve heard guys talking about it, and I’m really excited. This is the fun part of the year.”
Folin, a fellow Swede, concurred. “I feel really good and really ready to play some big games,” he said. “I’ve watched it pretty close the last two years. It’s going to be really fun to get out there and finally play in my first [playoff] game.”
After bouncing between the Wild and its AHL affiliate in Iowa last season, Folin won a place on the Wild roster in training camp and kept it. One of the team’s most physical defensemen, he has registered 69 hits and spent much of the season alongside Jonas Brodin on the third defensive pairing. At 6-3 and 205 pounds, Folin can give the Wild some much-needed muscle in the postseason.
Eriksson Ek played nine games before the Wild returned him to Sweden in November for more seasoning. A quick study, he had two goals and three assists during his first NHL stint and has been a solid fourth-line center since coming back. In Sweden, he helped Farjestad BK reach the quarterfinals in the Swedish Elite League playoffs, and he played in the world junior championship for the third time.
Eriksson Ek said that experience will help him in the NHL playoffs, just as playing big minutes in a significant role with Farjestad left him better prepared for his return to the Wild.
“It was good for me to play in those types of games,” he said. “We had some great games there, with a lot of crowds. That was fun, but I think this is going to be something else.”
Wild center Mikko Koivu said the playoff newcomers should understand that even veterans get nervous this time of year. He urged them to rely on their experience, both in the NHL and in other big-game environments.
Forward Charlie Coyle said the veterans can help out by telling the two what to expect. Coach Bruce Boudreau, though, knows they just have to get out there and learn.
“You can talk to them,” Boudreau said. “But the only way they’re going to see what’s going on is by playing. The big thing is not to get overwhelmed by it, and at the same time, play your best. That’s all we ask.”
The Blues’ lineup also includes some youngsters making their NHL playoff debuts. They have two impressive rookie forwards in Ivan Barbashev, who has been centering their top line, and Zach Sanford. Rookie defenseman Jordan Schmaltz also could play in Wednesday’s opener.
Though Folin anticipates his emotions will run high Wednesday, he feels ready for the moment.
“I’m sure I’ll be a little nervous, but it will be a good nervous,” he said. “You just have to go out and play hockey like you have all year.”