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Wild's Scandella credits playoff series for growth

by Dan Myers

The turning point of Minnesota Wild defenseman Marco Scandella's NHL career isn't hard to find.

After spending all but six games of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season in the American Hockey League, Scandella was recalled by the Wild in time to play against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

An injury forced coach Mike Yeo to put Scandella in the lineup for Game 1 despite him not having played a game with the Wild in nearly three months. He responded with a goal in Game 2 and an assist in Game 5.

After spending three seasons shuttling back and forth between the Houston Aeros of the AHL and the Wild, Scandella finally had arrived. He hasn't left since, developing into a key part of the Wild defense heading into their game Thursday at the Nashville Predators (8:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

"You have to take your opportunity and run with it and I did that in the playoffs against Chicago," Scandella said. "I never looked back since and I'm never going to look back. As soon as I got my chance again I knew I wasn't going to let it go."

If the 25-year-old sounds like someone with a chip on his shoulder, he is.

After being chosen by Minnesota in the second round (No. 55) of the 2008 NHL Draft, he debuted with the Wild as a 20-year old in 2010. Several trips between Minnesota and Houston followed, and a rough second season before the lockout made some question whether he would reach the heights the Wild had hoped.

That first playoff series against the Blackhawks lasted five games, but it may have been the most important stretch of Scandella's career.

"As we got in we saw where his game was at," Yeo said. "He earned more and more ice time and more responsibility. The way he was defending aggressively, the way he was taking away time and space. His confidence was at a completely different level."

It's a confidence Scandella hasn't lost since. It's what has helped him develop into one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL this season, and perhaps the most consistent on the Wild; that's saying something considering one of his teammates is all-star Ryan Suter.

That high level of play is what helped him secure a five-year, $20 million contract with the Wild in November that starts next season.

That belief in himself began during those playoffs and was reinforced the following season when the Wild signed him to a two-year contract in June 2013.

"The organization had a lot of trust in me," Scandella said. "They gave me a one-way [contract] so I wasn't worried about if I could play in this League. I knew I could; I just wanted to show and prove that I could play consistently for a whole season."

Because Scandella debuted at a young age and has been around since 2010, it's easy to forget how much room for growth remains in his game.

"He's going to be a really good player," Suter said. "He already is and I think he has a lot more in him. He's producing and playing a big role on our team. He's always asking questions. He even comes up to me quite often and asks me about certain things."

Suter and Scandella are not on the same defense pairing, but the relationship between has been mutually beneficial. With Scandella holding down the second pairing, usually with Jared Spurgeon, Minnesota has a top-four defense that's as good as any in the NHL.

Marco Scandella
Defense - MIN
GOALS: 9 | ASST: 11 | PTS: 20
SOG: 97 | +/-: 5
"He's one of the best in the game," Scandella said of Suter. "He makes it look easy out there. Just watching him game after game the last couple of years has definitely improved my game and how I look at certain situations and certain plays, how patient I am with the puck, not throwing it away for nothing."

Scandella also rediscovered the offensive part of his game. He already has surpassed his previous career highs with nine goals and 20 points this season. With his big shot and smooth skating, Scandella could be scratching the surface of his offensive potential.

"I've always had the big shot," he said. "I'm just finding a way to get better looks this year than I have in the past. It's opening up a lot more big chances for me. I'm just trying to keep getting pucks to the net, keep being consistent on trying to get open."

Scandella credits playing against and watching the Blackhawks for helping him become a better offensive player.

"I'm just trying to be active, trying to be in the rush," Scandella said. "They always have someone jumping in, and the [defensemen] are always moving on the blue line; nobody is stationary. I'm trying to bring that element to my game."

Yeo coached Scandella with Houston in 2010-11.

"You see the natural ability, you see his strengths, you see the picture of what he could be as an NHL player," Yeo said.

When Yeo became Wild coach the following season, Scandella joined him in Minnesota. Around Christmas, the Wild were among the best teams in the NHL and Scandella was off to a solid start.

Things went south in a hurry. The Wild missed the playoffs, and Scandella, who had been an even player into mid-December, finished minus-22.

That's when the trips back-and-forth to Texas began.

"I think most of it was mental," Yeo said. "I felt that he would have games where he would show exactly what we expected he would be. Then when things wouldn't go well it seemed to affect him. It seemed to carry; whether it was a bad shift or a bad game, he carried that with him."

The lockout delayed the 2012-13 season but allowed Scandella to work on his game in the AHL without the pressure of trying to make the NHL roster.

"I had to go down there and put in the work and get better," Scandella said. "I wasn't disappointed to go back. There was no NHL. I just wanted to keep my game sharp."

When the NHL came back in January 2013, Scandella didn't make the Wild. But he was up within a couple of weeks for a six-game stretch that he never forgot. They were games that helped define him for the next time he got the call.

"Once you get a little bit of a taste in this League you never want to leave," he said.

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