Feldman: Former Gopher Haula excelling in first NHL postseason
ST. PAUL— Erik Haula has played in 56 NHL games.
His tax bracket is closer to that of any random person who walked through the Xcel Energy Center turnstiles on Tuesday than Ryan Suter's or Zach Parise's.
Fourteen months ago he was playing college hockey across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.
But over the past six days, the 23-year-old from Finland has been one of the best — if not the best — players on a Minnesota Wild team that suddenly finds itself back in a Western Conference playoff series against defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago.
The Wild needed some energy, a jolt of excitement, in Game 3 of the series on Tuesday at the Xcel Center.
Haula delivered at the perfect time.
Less than two minutes into the third period, he drove hard to the net just as Justin Fontaine sent a saucer pass his way. Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford didn't have enough time to react as Haula batted it into the net to jumpstart Minnesota's four-goal third-period outburst in a 4-0 victory.
It was a Bulldog (Fontaine starred at the University of Minnesota-Duluth) feeding a Gopher (Haula was a three-year standout at Minnesota). An undrafted free agent (Fontaine) feeding a seventh-round pick (Haula).
"I'd say it's pretty good chemistry," Haula said with a smile.
"He was fast in college and he's fast here," Fontaine said of Haula. "That (win) is a series-changer."
Maybe Haula didn't realize the Wild were supposed to be uptight. They were down 2-0 in the best-of-7 series entering Tuesday's game and need to win four out of five games against a young but experienced Blackhawks team that had won six consecutive postseason games.
Or maybe he's just relishing his first NHL postseason experience.
"I'm really enjoying every second of it," he said. "I'm having a lot of fun out there. We have a great group of guys."
Haula signed an entry-level contract with the Wild after the Gophers season ended late in March last year. He started his first full professional season with the Wild's American Hockey League affiliate in Iowa, playing 31 games in Des Moines.
Once he got his shot in the NHL, he made it difficult for the coaches to keep him off the ice. He's been a fixture in the lineup, in a variety of roles, since late November.
"I really didn't want to look at it that way," Haula said when asked if there was a specific moment he realized he belongs in the NHL. "I wanted to take a day at a time. I tried to have a great attitude and go to work every day."
His goal 1:41 into the third period stretched his career-best point streak to three games and he now has five points in his first 10 NHL postseason games.
Once Haula gave the Wild a lead, they played like a different team, scoring three more times in the final 16:42, including two goals by Mikael Granlund and a power-play goal by Zach Parise that snapped an 0-for-24 stretch by the Wild's power play against Chicago in the postseason.
"What I saw in this game is that everybody played their role, and (Haula) played a very important role for us," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "He has continued to grow. His speed is a real factor. Chicago can skate. You need to capitalize when they make a mistake. His speed to get in there and drive the net on that goal was evident."