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Haula continues to play huge role for Wild

by Dan Myers

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- After a first-period breakaway drifted harmlessly off his stick, Minnesota Wild forward Erik Haula sat on the bench with hopes that he would get another opportunity in a similar spot.

Early in the third period, he got that chance and didn't miss. Haula scored the game-winning goal at 1:41, the first of a four-goal barrage for the Wild en route to a 4-0 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 3 of their Western Conference Second Round series at Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday night.

Chicago now leads the best-of-7 series 2-1; Game 4 will be played in Minnesota on Friday (9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS).

With the game scoreless and quality chances at a premium, each player on Minnesota's third line connected for the first goal. Haula's stretch pass to Matt Moulson in the neutral zone started the rush. Moulson passed to right wing Justin Fontaine, who had a full head of steam across the Chicago blue line. Fontaine skated in and found Haula flying past Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane at the backdoor, lofting a saucer pass towards the front of the net that Haula slapped in off a bounce past Corey Crawford.

"I just kept thinking in my head [that] I hope I get another chance to bury one," Haula said. "And [Fontaine] made a great play for me to do that."

"His speed is a real factor," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "You need to capitalize quickly when they make a mistake because they recover quickly. His speed to get in there and drive the net on that goal was evident."

The rise of Haula is nothing new to folks in the Twin Cities, who saw the Pori, Finland native first play about an hour south of St. Paul at Shattuck-St. Mary's School, and then down the road at the University of Minnesota. A seventh-round pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, Haula was easy for locals to follow; he finished his collegiate career after his junior season last spring.

As he developed at Minnesota, it quickly became apparent the Wild might have stolen Haula so late in the draft.

After a brief stint in the American Hockey League last season, Haula was expected to spend 2013-14 with the Iowa Wild in the AHL. That's where he found himself at the start of the season until a rash of injuries forced the big club to call him up.

As the season went on, it became harder and harder to send Haula back to Iowa until eventually, Minnesota decided against it. With Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund missing time down the stretch, Haula's playing time increased. He saw time on the penalty kill and top-six minutes. His play earned the trust of Yeo.

Haula isn't leading the Wild in scoring in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but from Game 1 of the first round against the Colorado Avalanche through Tuesday, he's arguably been Minnesota's most consistent player.

"A little overwhelming," Haula said of the praise. "I think the team has played great overall. Team wins, team loses."

For a team like the Wild, with plenty of star power amongst their forward group, Haula could be their silver bullet. With extra attention often following Moulson, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville around the rink, Haula can wreak havoc and usually does. He kills penalties. He can score. He can defend.

And against the Blackhawks, who play the game with a lot of speed, Haula's skating ability puts him in position to make plays.

"Your top guys are so keyed on. The matchups from the defensemen are so strong and the forwards are so strong so your top skilled guys on both sides are getting keyed on," Yeo said. "That's when you need other parts of your lineup to come through and make plays."

That challenge was answered early on by Haula, who has made the transition from Division I hockey to the NHL seem rather simple. Now, it's apparent Haula has secured a job in Minnesota for the foreseeable future.

"I really didn't want to look at it that way. As the season went on, I just wanted to take it a day at a time," Haula said. "With everything that happened, I just wanted to have a great attitude and go to work every day."

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