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X-Factor: Haula a true Wild card for Minnesota

Speedy forward can shut down opponents' top line in Stanley Cup Playoffs

by Dan Myers / NHL.com Correspondent

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When he took over as interim coach of the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 13, John Torchetti implored the younger players on his roster to take on a bigger role within a dressing room filled with veterans.

Perhaps no player has taken that more to heart than forward Erik Haula.

It's not that Torchetti elevated Haula in the lineup or has him playing top-six minutes; his role is essentially unchanged from the first half of the season.

But it's no coincidence that as the play of Haula has improved, so too has Minnesota's chances to succeed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Video: OTT@MIN: Haula finishes Pominville's feed to tie game

The improved play is the result of a simple message from Torchetti to Haula during a quick meeting between the two a few hours after the change in coaches.

"From my end, I had him [for six games with Houston of the American Hockey League in 2012-13] and I knew about his speed," Torchetti said. "I just wanted him to keep using it. His speed is incredible."

Haula's speed has repeatedly created mismatches in all three zones, and as a result, he has been one of the Wild's most valuable players, playing a starring role in Minnesota's late-season surge to its fourth consecutive trip to the postseason.

After scoring five goals and three assists in the first 49 games this season under Mike Yeo, Haula has nine goals and 12 assists and is a plus-13 since the coaching change. His 10-game point streak from March 12-31 was the longest active streak in the NHL when it ended and tied the longest streak in team history (Andrew Brunette, 2002).

Video: COL@MIN: Haula scores Wild's third goal of 1st period

Perhaps more importantly, Haula's line routinely has been charged with going against an opponent's top offensive group.

Haula relishes the assignment and knows his success will be crucial if the Wild hopes to advance past the second round for the first time since 2003.

"He looks forward to it, that's the No. 1 thing," Torchetti said. "He's disappointed if he gets scored on or if they get scoring chances. Or if I didn't keep that matchup, he's disappointed I didn't give it to him. That tells you everything about the player."

Tasked with shadowing the Patrick Kane-Artemi Panarin line in three games against the Chicago Blackhawks since Feb. 21, Haula's line has done wonders; Kane, the top point-scorer in the League, had one goal and was a minus-5 while Panarin, the top-scoring rookie, had one assist and was a minus-6. 

"Everyone has roles on the team and that's been [my] role, having that checker's mentality, being able to play good defense," Haula said.

Video: FLA@MIN: Haula steals, breaks away and nets lead

Haula also has been able to transition sound defensive play into more scoring chances. In those games against Chicago, he had three goals and three assists and was a plus-6.

He could face a similar showdown with Jamie Benn's line in the series against Dallas. Benn, the Art Ross Trophy winner last season, had 89 points this season.

"I feel like they go hand-in-hand," Haula said. "If you really play good defense, you're going to have the puck more, odd-man rushes, things like that. Just because you play defense well, doesn't mean you are [only] good in your own zone. It's neutral zone, it's transition, it's puck-possession, it's everything. If you have the puck most of the night against top guys, it's going to be hard for them to generate. That's the key to it."

In addition to increased offensive production and a more prominent defensive role, Haula also is the Wild's best penalty killer and has improved his faceoff percentage from 46 percent his first two years in the NHL to 53 percent this season.

Haula credits his improvement in all facets to an increased maturity and a different outlook.

"It's growing into that veteran," he said. "[I'm] not a rookie player [anymore]. It's being able to play consistent hockey, be on top of your game every night." 

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