L ike Norm from “Cheers,” every time Nino Niederreiter walks into Seven Steakhouse Sushi Ultralounge Skybar in downtown Minneapolis, everybody knows his name.
The hosts, the servers, the bartenders, the managers … they’re all his friends.
“They’re like family. It feels like home,” Niederreiter said.
Three or four times a week, the Wild winger goes there for dinner. Often times, he doesn’t even go with other company because he knows he can chat with the employees.
“I love Minneapolis,” the smiling youngster nicknamed “El Niño” said.
Ask anybody in the Wild locker room to describe Niederreiter, the answers are all the same. “He’s such a happy guy,” center Charlie Coyle said. “He’s one of the nicest people ever and respects everyone,” center Mikael Granlund said.
That’s partly why one of the friendliest Wild players feels so at home in Minnesota. He loves the people and everything the Twin Cities has to offer.
“It’s such a great place,” said Niederreiter, a native of Switzerland. “There’s so much sports going on — football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse. It’s got a bit of everything. It’s cool hockey is one of the biggest things here, and it’s just fun to be part of a team with the young group we have here and a good mix of young and older guys.”
Niederreiter is part of a young group of 2010 draft picks (including Granlund, Coyle and Jason Zucker) that are growing together.
Coyle always jabs him for his fashionable socks and habit of saying the word, “absolutely.” He and Granlund often play FIFA together on PlayStation and give each other grief, like last year when Granlund, who says he’s the world’s biggest procrastinator and leaves everything to the last minute, asked Niederreiter to help clean his apartment only hours before his offseason flight home to Finland.
“I go in and he hasn’t packed a thing,” Niederreiter said. “We just threw everything in his car [to store for the summer] not even in boxes. You couldn’t even drive it anymore. It was a huge disaster.”
To say Niederreiter, 22, is happy right now is an understatement.
He is prepping for the second round of the playoffs against the Chicago Blackhawks for the second consecutive year. And one season after becoming a hero with Wild fans by catapulting the Wild into the conference semifinals with a Game 7 overtime “sick wrister” against Colorado, Niederreiter is playing on the Wild’s top line with Mikko Koivu and Chris Stewart.
He is tied with Zach Parise for the team lead with three goals (two empty-netters) and is fourth with four points.
“I definitely feel so much better with one playoff under my belt,” Niederreiter said. “I just know how important every game is and if you lose 6-1 [as in Game 4 of the Blues series], you put it behind you as quickly as possible and respond and win 4-1 [in Game 5].
“Last year, I always was thinking about the game before and what happened. This year, it definitely feels different and I want to help lead us to something special.”
Two summers ago, Niederreiter didn’t know what his future would hold. Drafted fifth overall by the Islanders in 2010, Niederreiter couldn’t escape the fourth line in 2011-12, scoring once in 55 games. During the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, he produced 28 goals and 50 points in Bridgeport of the American Hockey League, but when the lockout ended, the Islanders didn’t invite him to training camp.
“I was confused,” he said.
A month later, Niederreiter’s agent asked for a trade. The Isles obliged four months later, sending him to Minnesota for Cal Clutterbuck and a draft pick.
In his first year with the Wild, Niederreiter scored 14 goals, 36 points and was plus-12. The highlight, of course, was Game 7 in the Avalanche series when he scored a third-period goal, assisted on Jared Spurgeon’s overtime-forcing goal and scored the series’ clincher.
This past season, Niederreiter was the Wild’s second-leading goal scorer with a career-high 24 goals. He had a career-high 37 points, was second on the team with six power-play goals, led the team with five game-winning goals and was plus-16 since the All-Star break, second on the team in that span to Coyle.
Not bad from a player who entered this season looking to bite off more responsibility, like a top-six role and more than the 110 total minutes he played on the power play last season.
Niederreiter stayed positive and didn’t gripe during the dog days of the season when he struggled and was sanctioned to the fourth line with Coyle. “It was a motivating feeling,” he said.
All over the map playing left and right wing and on virtually every line, Niederreiter’s hard work paid off to the point he played with Koivu and Stewart for much of the final month and was reunited with them in Game 5 of the Blues series.
Coach Mike Yeo’s tinkering worked because Niederreiter scored what Yeo called “a goal scorer’s goal” for his third career playoff game-winner, a franchise record. Cycling down low with Stewart, Niederreiter sneaked to the slot, pushed away from Barret Jackman to create a soft opening for himself and one-timed a beauty off the post and in.
“That’s what goal scorers do,” Yeo said. “They don’t wait for the puck to come to them. They find areas and put themselves in a position where they give the guy with a puck a chance to make a play.”
Niederreiter, the king of the goalmouth scrum who often pays the price by going to the corners and front of the net, said the Game 5 winner was “a similar feeling to [last year’s Game 7 overtime winner],” meaning he wasn’t initially sure it went in because he heard the ping of the post.
But he eventually had a similar elation.
“But I know to stay in this role, I have to keep working and do all the details right to stay there,” Niederreiter said. “But everything is going perfect right now.”
He thinks back to his days with the Islanders.
“I was very fortunate to be traded here,” he said. “I’m very happy to be here. I wished it would have worked in New York. They drafted me, so they’ll always be part of me. But I got the fresh start I wanted and my dream is to play here ’til the end.”