If you didn’t age 10 years after Monday night’s game, there’s something wrong with you.
The Minnesota Wild was down 2-0 in its quarterfinal series with the mighty Colorado Avalanche and, while dominating Game Three in nearly every way possible, couldn’t figure out how to solve goaltender Semyon Varlamov. Sophomore second line center Mikael Granlund knew how.
In the extra session of a scoreless tie, the Finnish Phenom worked his way down low around and behind the net, whiffing on a pass up to the blue line, while shaking Avalanche defenseman Jan Hejda in the process, and found a lane through the Colorado defense across the crease. For what seemed like the millionth time that night, Granlund drove towards the net, diving past a scrambling Erik Johnson and an out of position Varlamov. “Granlund the Great” lived up to the hype, guiding home the puck while sliding across the crease on his back. Pure poetry.
Considering where he was at just two games previous, to say the youngster’s confidence has grown is a vast understatement. Ask any Wild fan and they’ll be first to admit Granlund isn’t known for his aggressive goal scoring prowess. After Monday night, it’s hard to believe otherwise. In 19:41 of ice time, he won 58.33 percent of face-offs taken, created several scoring chances and fired seven (that’s right, seven) shots on net in the process of scoring the game-winning goal and being named the league’s third star of the night and first of the game.
After a discouraging performance in his playoff debut last Thursday–a game in which he passed on prime shooting opportunities and won just 42.86 percent of face-offs taken–Granlund has steadily improved. He’s aggressive with the puck, steady on the draw and a pain in the side of the Avs’ defense every time he hops the boards. Monday night, he made a statement.
The State of Hockey expected big things when Wild Assistant GM Brent Flahr and his scouting staff tabbed Granlund as the team’s best option with the ninth overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Years after losing superstar Marian Gaborik, Minnesota was in need of a savior to lead the team from the bottomless pit of mediocrity to the ranks of the elite. After four long years of waiting, Granlund finally delivered at least a glimpse of what Flahr and his staff envisioned.
The best part is, Granlund’s compete level is already so high, it’s a good bet we’ve only just begun to see this side of him in action. Known as an elite-caliber playmaker, Granlund contributed assists on more than a few of Jason Pominville’s 30 goals, collecting a grand total of 33 in addition to eight biscuits in the basket for 41 points and a negative-3 rating in 63 games. He was good this season, no doubt, but not as good as his postseason and Olympic play suggests he could be as early as next season.
Granlund has never played with such confidence and determination in his career–at least, not during his time in North America. He seems sure of himself and plays with a patience that suggests he knows it’s always only a matter of time before he can break through and create a prime scoring chance for either himself or his line mates. While he’ll never be a hundred point scorer, and he certainly isn’t Nathan MacKinnon, it tickles Minnesota fans to no end seeing Granlund expertly skate circles around the opposing defense until opportunity strikes. If he keeps progressing at the rate he’s currently at, he’ll be a 20-25 goal, 60-80 point scorer in no time.
Tonight is just another step forward for the Wild center. Colorado saw what he’s capable of, and they won’t be fooled so easily a second time. After the Cooke/Barrie incident, everyone will be on high alert to make sure the game is played fairly by both teams and no one on either side takes liberties with any of the opposing team’s impact players. That doesn’t mean an extra hard hit or two won’t be thrown.
If Granlund’s smart, he’ll be aware of his surroundings and know when or when not to take chances. Even still, the Avalanche need to be careful–they won’t be able to contain him forever.