ST. PAUL, Minn. — Before most games, Wild right wing Nino Niederreiter sits alone in the stands, taping his stick and centering himself mentally.
Whether he’s in the Xcel Energy Center or abroad, the Swiss youngster nicknamed after a weather system heads for the same spot — 10 rows up, 15 seats in. There, he sits, mulling over his previous performance and gazing into what’s necessary for the next one.
As he does, the roll of hockey tape in his hand turns over his blade slowly, methodically.
"It’s a good thing just to focus on your game and what you want to do that night," Niederreiter said, "relax yourself."
During one such pregame meditation session, before Game 6 of the Western Conference quarterfinals against Colorado, "El Niño" had a minor epiphany.
"I feel like since I was younger, I challenged myself to be a difference maker," said Niederreiter, who tallied one point and was a minus-3 five games into the Stanley Cup playoffs. "That’s what I told myself, to try to get some offensive ability going. I felt like in Game 6 I had to come in and get more shots off."
It didn’t show up on the final scoresheet of Minnesota’s 5-2, stay-alive win that night. But sometime in the second period, coach Mike Yeo watched the 21-year-old sniper reach another echelon.
He was skating better, flowing more fluidly, finishing hits more soundly. "He flipped a switch there," Yeo said, "and it was just an opportunity for us to say ‘OK, there it is, that’s the blueprint for what we need night after night.’"
And ever since then, Niederreiter’s provided it.
In the Wild’s past five games, he’s moved up to a plus-3 rating and tallied five points, including three — one on his lore-inspiring game winner — in Game 7 at Colorado. In Friday night’s 4-2, series-evening victory over Chicago, he rifled a shot over goalie Corey Crawford’s shoulder in the second period that broke a 2-all tie.
Even when he’s not scoring, the first-year Wild player has been a big part of Minnesota’s aggressive and effective forecheck that has the team outshooting the Blackhawks 100-83 heading into Game 5 Sunday at Chicago. Changing to a line with Charlie Coyle and Mikko Koivu has done him some good, and his production has increased astronomically from his days with the Islanders.
New York drafted him fifth overall in 2010 and inserted him into the lineup full-time a year later. In 55 games in 2011-12, the 19-year-old registered one point.
He spent the next season’s entirety in the AHL with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers — a vexing state of being for a guy once touted as a franchise changer.
Participation for Switzerland in the 2013 world championships rekindled his zeal for the game, he said. A June 30 trade last summer in exchange for Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round draft pick originally belonging to New Jersey offered him a fresh start in the Twin Cities.
With 17 goals and 25 assists in 92 games this season, the playoffs included, he feels he’s making the most of it.
"It’s been definitely a great ride," said Niederreiter, who has three goals and three assists this postseason. "Last year, I would have hoped to get called up from the Islanders, that would have been great, but I had to tell myself to control those things I can control. That was the model for me last year, and then I had a chance to go to the world championships and perform, and that’s how I ended up here, I think."
Niederreiter’s enthusiasm is unmistakable. He’s even taken to kissing teammates following a big play — see the aftermath of Jared Spurgeon’s game-tying goal in Game 7 against the Avalanche or Ilya Bryzgalov’s sprawling, point-blank save on Jeremy Morin late in Friday’s win.
"I was just so happy," Niederreiter said of the latter instance. "It’s silly, but you appreciate stuff like that."
The 6-foot-2, 208-pound power forward joins a handful of fresh faces making a considerable difference during the Wild’s resilient playoff run. A league-high 16 Minnesota players have scored a goal this season; six of them, including Niederreiter, are 24 years old or younger.
Niederreiter, Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula — all 23 or younger — have combined for 25 of the Wild’s 94 points this postseason.
They’ve grown as the playoff grind has worn on, Yeo said.
"You learn through the course of the season. You can learn it in the round," the coach said. "In the first round, we only won one game more than we lost, so obviously there were learning moments in both of those situations — when you win a game, when you lose a game. These guys have been learning, no question, on the fly."
Said 33-year-old left winger Dany Heatley: "I thought towards the end of the year those (young) guys got better, as did our whole team. We went into the playoffs playing pretty well and those guys have taken it to another level."