EDMONTON, ALBERTA – Five minutes after the Wild beat the Calgary Flames in overtime on Wednesday night, Nate Prosser walked out of the locker room, started laughing and said, “Smoked first shift. Told you it’d be [Brandon] Bollig.”
It’s admirable, horrifying and foolish all wrapped in one, but no other Wild defenseman takes a hit to make a play (old hockey idiom) the way Prosser does. It’s not exaggerating to say that Prosser puts himself in a position to get lit up three or four times per game.
Yet every time, Prosser picks himself off the ice, shakes off the cartoonlike stars above his head and skates away like nothing happened.
“I give him a ton of credit,” said coach Mike Yeo, who has been relying on Prosser a lot during the Wild’s 9-1-1 post-All-Star-break stretch and will be even more so with Jared Spurgeon now sidelined because of a head injury. “There’s certain messages that you can send to your teammates. It’s the ones I think where a player’s paying the price for his teammates that are the loudest and the clearest messages.”
Against Calgary, it was Bollig and Lance Buoma who got Prosser. Two nights earlier in Vancouver, Prosser took five hits, including one so loud and forceful by Ronalds Kenins that it sounded like car wreck. Last month when the Wild was in Edmonton, Prosser had to leave the game for 10 minutes as part of a concussion protocol when Nail Yakupov crushed him.
“I’ve got to get more cognizant of it,” admitted Prosser, 28. “But at the same time, I match up against the other team’s third- and fourth-line guys. What’s their role? Their role is to finish every hit that they can.”
They must make them tough in Elk River, where Prosser grew up skating around the Handke Pit learning his craft. He was a self-described “annoying little shrimp,” a pipsqueak. As a junior year in high school, he hit a growth spurt that brought him from 5- 2 to 6-2 in one year.
Being the little guy for so long, Prosser learned to take hits, he says.
“Maybe I’ve got a little Gumby in me where I can absorb a little bit more of a hit,” Prosser said.
Still, teammates such as Ryan Suter are imploring Prosser to better protect himself and not leave himself vulnerable for the big, dangerous hits. Suter is an expert at peeling off and avoiding big hits.
“I talk to him after every one of those hits and I tell him, ‘You’ve got to move the puck faster,’ ” Suter said of Prosser, who has played 174 games in parts of six seasons. “You hold on to the puck and not make a decision quicker, guys are going to come get you. He’s got to move the puck faster. If he’s got nothing, just move it. Get it out of your hands.
“He’ll learn that. I used to get rocked like that, too. You just try to think ahead so you’re not always taking hits. That’s tough on your body.”
Prosser admits his wife, Brittani, lately has worried. She wants him to have a long career and healthy life with their two young children.
“Recently, she’s telling me that I need to be more aware of it,” Prosser said. “I try to explain that I’m matched up against fourth-line guys and they’re big, thick guys and that’s their job. But maybe it’s something I’ve got to get better at going back for the puck and realizing a guy like [Vancouver’s Derek] Dorsett is coming down on me and brace a little more.
“I’ve got my faith. I pray to my God to protect me each and every game, and he has.”
Yeo loves the way Prosser is playing right now. In the Wild’s 9-1-1 streak, Prosser has been an even or plus player every game and is an integral part of the Wild’s 29-for-29 penalty kill in 11 games since the break.
“He’s been an underlying story in our team success,” Yeo said. “Without a question, he’s playing his best hockey of the season right now and playing a real valuable role.”
In 2010, Prosser signed with the Wild as a free agent after four years at Colorado College. He wasn’t allowed to be sent to the minors, so he practiced the final two weeks with the Wild and wasn’t supposed to play. But suddenly the Wild got to Edmonton, Marek Zidlicky and Nick Schultz got hurt, and Prosser was thrown into the lineup.
So returning to Edmonton, where the Wild plays on Friday, “is always special for me. Everyone remembers their first game,” Prosser said. “I came right from college and next thing I know I’m looking across the locker room at Mikko Koivu and Andrew Brunette.
“It was pretty wild, the buzz of playing in a sold-out, packed Canadian arena. I’m proud I’m still here five years later.”