Zulgad: Haula continues playoff excellence after getting second chance
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ST. PAUL -- Erik Haula was hoping to get a second chance.
In the midst of a tight-checking first period on Tuesday night at Xcel Energy Center, the Wild center had moved in alone on Chicago goalie Corey Crawford only to absorb a slash from defenseman Duncan Keith.
Haula lost control of the puck at the last second and it dribbled wide of the net. As the third period of Game 3 of the Wild's second-round playoff series against the Blackhawks opened, the rookie's failure to get a shot on goal remained among his team's best scoring opportunities of the night.
"I just kept thinking in my head, I was like, 'Hopefully, I get another chance to bury one,'" Haula said.
That chance came early in the third period and this time Haula didn't miss.
Haula streaked down the left wing side toward Crawford's goal and Justin Fontaine fed him a pass that Haula knocked out of the air and into the net. The goal - off a pass that Haula kindly referred to as "perfect" -- came at 1 minute, 41 seconds of the period and helped spark the Wild to a 4-0 victory before an announced crowd of 19,416.
The Wild cut Chicago's lead to 2-1 in the series, with Game 4 set for Friday night at the X. The Wild has won all four of their playoff games at home this season.
The fact Haula scored his second goal of the postseason should have come as a surprise to absolutely no one. While coach Mike Yeo went out of his way to praise his veterans for their performances Tuesday, it was Yeo's youngsters who provided the clutch goals.
Haula, who played college hockey for the Gophers and was a seventh-round choice of the Wild in 2009, has been perhaps Minnesota's best player in the first three games of this series. Haula called the praise, "a little overwhelming," when asked how it felt.
But it's impossible to ignore the production. Haula now has a goal and two assists in the past three games and has four points (1-3-4) in the past five games and five points (2-3-5) in the playoffs.
On Tuesday, he blocked two shots and won 5-of-9 faceoffs.
Much of that came as Haula centered a line with the struggling Matt Moulson on his left and Fontaine on his right. Moulson got his second assist and only third point in 10 playoff games on Haula's goal.
"He was good," Yeo said of Haula. "I don't want to take anything away from him but we've had a lot of guys who have been very good. What I saw tonight is everybody was very good in their role and he played a real important role for us like he has. He's continued to grow. His speed is a real factor.
"This is a team that can skate and you need to capitalize quickly when they make a mistake (because) they recover quickly. So his speed to get in there and drive the net on that goal was evident."
Yeo might not be willing to praise Haula, but the coach has increased his playing time from about 10 minutes a game during the regular season to 14 in the playoffs.
This is in part because Haula's speed is of the utmost importance against a Chicago team that has little interest in getting into scrums and would much rather skate circles around its foes. Haula, though, has the ability to not only play the Blackhawks game but beat them at it at times.
"I like that up-and-down game and they like to play like that," said Haula, who had six goals and nine assists in 46 regular-season games with the Wild and 14 goals and 13 assists in 31 games with Iowa of the AHL. "Maybe we want to slow them down a little but I like a speedy game."
Haula had hoped to use that speed to score on the first-period breakaway before Keith got involved by doing his stick work. Haula, though, wasn't willing to blame Keith's slash, which did not result in a penalty.
"I don't really know," the impact the slash had on the play, Haula said. "Everything happened at a fast pace. Maybe he got a little smack at my hand and maybe I just lost it because of that or maybe I just lost it. I don't really know but I'm happy with the results."