ST. PAUL, Minn. — Nino Niederreiter made a strong first impression with his new team.
Niederreiter, the 21-year-old Minnesota Wild forward acquired this offseason from the Islanders, scored the Wild’s only goal in Tuesday’s 3-1 preseason loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. But even when he wasn’t burying the puck in the back of the net, the 6-foot-2, 208-pound Niederreiter made his presence felt.
His new coach took notice, too.
“I would argue that he was probably our best forward tonight,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “I liked that he was making plays. I liked that he was going to the net. … He goes there and you can see there was a number of pucks he was whacking at. Sometimes it’s not even about that guy scoring the goal. It’s about occupying somebody else and freeing up space or pucks for somebody else, and I thought he did a really good job of that.”
Niederreiter’s goal came on the power play in the second period when he collected a Charlie Coyle rebound and fired it past Columbus goalie Jeremy Smith. Mikael Granlund was credited with the second assist of Niederreiter’s backhand goal.
It was yet another example of how Niederreiter was constantly around the net Tuesday.
“That’s where the pucks usually go in,” Niederreiter said. “I know that’s one of my strengths to be in front of the net, trying to get those bounces and put them in the net. The power play, that’s definitely one of the strengths there.”
The Swiss-born Niederreiter has just 64 games of NHL experience under his belt, including 55 games with the Islanders during the 2011-12 season. He didn’t play in the NHL at all during the lockout-shortened year last season.
Now, one preseason game into his Wild career, Niederreiter looks comfortable with his new surroundings. But as Yeo and the coaching staff attempts to cut the training camp roster before the regular season, Niederreiter knows he’ll have to continue to work for a spot.
“I can’t wait until I have a chance to make the team,” Niederreiter said. “Obviously it’s not for granted. I will do everything it takes to make the team here. I’m very excited about it.”
Zucker suffers injury: Wild forward Jason Zucker left Tuesday’s game with what Yeo said was a tweaked groin. He had just 7:06 of ice time before he went to the locker room as a precaution. Yeo wasn’t sure after the game of the severity of the injury but hoped it was nothing serious.
“It happened I think it was (his) first shift and then he battled through it for a little bit,” Yeo said. “He did a good job while he was doing it, actually. I wish I could have seen him more. At the same time, we’ve still got lots of camp. We’ve got lots of time, so let’s make sure he doesn’t hurt it more.”
Zucker, 21, turned some heads last year when he scored a game-winning goal against Chicago in overtime of the playoffs. He played in 20 regular-season games and all five playoff games last year and finished with five total goals and two assists in his limited time with Minnesota.
Early-season rust: From the early stages of Tuesday’s preseason opener, it was clear that the game was just that: a preseason opener.
Minnesota’s power play looked sluggish at times. Starting goalie Niklas Backstrom appeared rusty — he allowed three goals on 10 shots through just over half of Tuesday’s game. Columbus, meanwhile, had already played a handful of exhibition games prior to Tuesday and came out looking much sharper than Minnesota.
“It was kind of what we expected,” Yeo said. “We were hoping to see some good things, and we saw a few good things. Would have liked to have seen some more. I think it was clear they had played a couple exhibition games already because they were speed, a different battle level than we were. We were still in scrimmage mode. It took us probably about 58 minutes to really get up to game mode.”
The Wild’s ineffective power play early in the game drew a number of boos from the Xcel Energy Center crowd. Minnesota finally did connect with the man advantage on Niederreiter’s goal midway through the second period.
Minnesota still has five more preseason games to go — beginning Thursday in Winnipeg — before the regular season opens on Oct. 3. While Tuesday’s opener helped the Wild develop some early chemistry, it also revealed that there’s plenty of work to do before the season starts.
“I think guys have been waiting for that all summer, so it was nice to get out there in a game situation, kind of work on some things,” Coyle said. “We have some stuff to work on, but it’s good to get that out of the way right now.”