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Wild's Niederreiter excelling in Stanley Cup Playoffs

by Shawn Roarke

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Minnesota Wild forward Nino Niederreiter says once he stopped thinking about the goals he wasn't scoring, he started scoring the goals he wanted to score.

By letting his mind go, he ended up getting to where he wanted to be all along.

Now, Niederreiter is having an impact on the Stanley Cup Playoffs, excelling as one of the Wild's most physical forwards as they battle the Chicago Blackhawks in a Western Conference Second Round series. Minnesota will look to even the best-of-7 series at two games apiece with a win in Game 4 on Friday at Xcel Energy Center (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN, RDS)

"This is a guy that, coming in here this year and you look at where he has come as far as what type of player he has become, and it is a real compliment to him," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "We've had him on our fourth line and we've had him on our first line. We've had him on a checking line and we've had him on a scoring line, and he has really learned what type of player he has to be, the way he needs to play to be successful night in and night out.

"He's not a fun guy to play against when he is on top of his game. He's physical, he's strong on the puck, he's got the ability to make plays. He also has a good awareness of how to play without the puck. This is a guy that we have seen an awful lot of growth from as far as learning what his game is, but also just what it means to be a pro, and what it means to compete and be successful at this time of year."

But it was a long journey to this point for Niederreiter, who endured a crisis of confidence before landing in The Land of 10,000 Lakes.

"At the beginning, I was thinking too much," Niederreiter said. "We play because we love the game and you want to play it. You go out there and you are afraid to make mistakes. That's where it costs you."

For years, Niederreiter could score without thinking, it seemed. His final season in his native Switzerland, he scored 26 goals in 36 games at the junior level for legendary club Davos. He needed a bigger challenge and found it with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League.

The rough-and-tumble style of the WHL and the smaller rinks in North America were supposed to be deterrents to the ease with which Niederreiter found the back of the net. It didn't happen. In his first season in Portland, as a 17-year-old, he scored 36 goals. The next year, it was 41.

His path to the NHL and the New York Islanders, the team that selected him at No. 5 in the 2010 NHL Draft, seemed a no-brainer. The Islanders would have the goal-scoring power forward upon which organizations are built.

Only problem is he didn't score. His first season, he was seldom used at the NHL level and had one goal in nine games. His confidence took its first hit. The next season, he played 55 NHL games, but scored just one goal again. In 2012-13, he didn't make the NHL and was stranded in Bridgeport, Connecticut, home of the Islanders' American Hockey League affiliate. He scored 28 goals, but it only frustrated him more that he couldn't get another sniff of the League, which was the reason he came to North America in the first place.

"It would have been great if it would have worked out with the New York Islanders," Niederreiter said. "But at the same time, obviously, last year I was doing pretty well in the AHL and hoped I would get called up, but it never happened and it kind of gave me a big impact in the summer, knowing I wanted to make the League next year and I would do everything I could to make it here."

In the end, it took a change of scenery for Niederreiter. In June, the Islanders traded him to the Wild in exchange for forward Cal Clutterbuck and a draft pick.

The fact another team wanted him, believed in him, was all he needed. He rededicated himself to those things that made him a can't-miss prospect a few years earlier.

The results came almost immediately.

"Confidence is a big thing," Niederreiter said. "You have to go out there and try things. You can't be afraid to try things and you can't be afraid to make mistakes, and I feel that is something I learned over the first half of the season.

"You have to focus on yourself and believe in yourself. That is a big thing, and I feel if you have great support around in the team and with the coaching staff and they believe in you, that is a big help."

Each game, it seemed, Niederreiter rediscovered an element of his game. He was holding on to the puck longer, he was positioning himself in the high-contact areas around the net, he was driving the cycle game for his line when he was on the ice.

"As you get more comfortable not just with your teammates, but in this League, you learn that you can hold on to the puck, that you have more time than you think," Minnesota forward Zach Parise said. "You don't have to get rid of it right away. He's done a really good job this season recognizing that and making plays where he holds on to it longer and has more time than he thinks."

As the season progressed, Niederreiter was placed in various spots in the lineup. One day he was on the fourth line, another he was on the first line. He used his skills to adapt with whomever he was deployed. He found a way to make an impact, scoring 15 goals during the season.

But he really began to reach his power-forward peak toward the end of the season.

"He's always played with a bit of an edge to his game. You saw a couple of games at the end of the year, there were like four or five guys on the other team that he was driving nuts," Parise said, chuckling at the memories. "I think when he is playing well, he's doing that. We are kind of seeing now as the season goes on that he's got his scoring touch as well."

Niederreiter didn't score in the first six games of the playoffs, but he scored two goals in Game 7, including the overtime game-winner, against the Colorado Avalanche. He hasn't scored in the first three games of this series, but he has been one of the Wild's most dangerous forwards.

"It took me a little time to figure out how to score in this League and now it is getting better and better," Niederreiter said.

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