ST. PAUL, Minn. — When the Minnesota Wild were making their run to the Western Conference wild-card lead in January without Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise, Erik Haula was playing a defensive role on the fourth-line and proving to be a vital contributor in his first NHL season.
When Mikael Granlund suffered an upper-body injury on Monday, Haula’s found himself on the second line skating with Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville.
Haula’s move has paid off for Minnesota the past two games, and Cody McCormick promptly stepped up in Haula’s previous spot in an important 4-0 win for the Wild on Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Haula scored in the first period for his first NHL game-winning goal, McCormick scored his first goal since being acquired with Moulson at the trade deadline and goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov — another trade-deadline acquisition — made 20 saves for his second shutout with the Wild on Saturday.
"I’m playing with two great players and they definitely help; just trying to do everything I can to fill in that role and right now I’ve gotten some bounces and got a couple goals, so it’s nice," Haula said. "It’s rewarding. Just kind of keep going and not think about too much. Hopefully Granny comes back as soon as possible. I think he helps our team significantly. But it’s nice to know, with the earlier injuries too, that we’re able to play against the top teams even if we have a couple key injuries."
Haula has five goals and six assists in his first professional season. With Granlund missing the past two games because of injury, Haula has helped in a big way by scoring in two straight games, points in three straight and four points total in his last six games.
The skilled rookie from the University of Minnesota scored with 1 minute, 54 seconds left in Chicago on Thursday to help Minnesota gain a point in a shootout loss and then he set the early momentum Saturday by using his speed to get behind the defense and chip a pass past Pittsburgh goaltender Jeff Zatkoff.
"It’s been nice," Haula said of scoring recently. "I try not to think about that, just try to play the way I’ve been playing for the whole season. Obviously if there’s plays to be made, I try to make them. With the skill guys that I have next to me, I got to step up and try to feed them the puck a little bit more. Just try to keep using my speed and good things would happen with that, so I’m going to keep doing that."
The perspective displayed by Haula is appreciated by head coach Mike Yeo. Haula maintains his defensive responsibility while also developing consistency.
Yeo said he is "not overly" surprised about Haula’s play.
"What’s impressed me is he’s been able to keep the defensive part of his game, and obviously he’s starting to show it’s going to have to be, you know we say this with all our young guys, it’s not a one- or a two-game thing," Yeo said. "The next game’s always the next challenge, building the consistency and pushing these young guys to a standard of never being satisfied is what’s really important for our organization. But that said, what’s impressed me is that his game has looked the same whether he’s played against a fourth line and a third ‘D’ pairing or he’s played against a second line and a second ‘D’ pairing and that’s going to be big for him going forward."
Minnesota received contributions all around Saturday to score another big win. The Wild now are five points ahead of the Dallas Stars and six points on the Phoenix Coyotes for seventh in the West with four games left in Minnesota’s season.
With Haula filling a role in a top-6 spot, McCormick found himself back in the lineup after being a healthy scratch the past three games. McCormick had a goal and assist on Saturday. He added an assist as the fourth line provided another goal, with Stephane Veilleux tallying his third of the season.
"Those guys had a real good identity," Yeo said. "That’s what we liked. Defensively I thought they were very strong, Cody and Steph doing a good job on the penalty kill. Physical; those guys having hits in the game and getting in on the forecheck. That’s the way that we prefer for them to defend, we want them to bring momentum by playing in the offensive zone, getting on the forecheck and obviously factoring into the score sheet offensively is big."
McCormick joked he told Mikko Koivu to "catch a breath" and stayed out longer during a shift when Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle were working in on the forecheck, and Parise found McCormick alone in front of the net with a pass that McCormick put in the net.
"I wish it came a little earlier," McCormick said of scoring his first goal with the Wild. "Yeah, it’s something that the bottom-6 want to contribute with and we were able to do that tonight. Going forward, I hope we can keep bringing energy and capitalize on our chances."
Like Haula before him, McCormick was thankful to step in when needed.
"When you’re sitting out, you’re making sure you’re doing what you can to get back in the lineup and contribute," McCormick said. "You don’t pout, you know the opportunity will come and you just have to make sure you’re ready for it."