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Playing with emotion pays off, but it's a delicate balance

Even-keeled Wild core recognizes a few highs, lows are more than OK

by Phil Ervin /

ST. PAUL -- Eric Staal is a 33-year-old man with three sons, a wife, 13 full NHL seasons under his belt and a calm, consistent, mature public demeanor that's congruent with it all.

Between the whistles, he plays with a similar constancy: eyes narrowed, focused ahead, every atom of his entire 6-foot-4, 209-pound frame poised to strike. When a goal happens, that stoicism is replaced by pure, unmistakable joy, usually in the form of a celebratory fist pump and a leap into the nearest board, teammate or both he can find.

It's these moments of elation that provide a glimpse inside perhaps the most delicate, difficult-to-quantify and variable element of a hockey season, game or stretch like the Wild's current four-game win streak.

Human emotion.

"Sometimes, there's days you wake up like anybody and you don't feel as good as you want to feel," Staal said. "That's just the reality of it. As much as sometimes you work as hard as you can to prepare -- which you should, as any professional athlete will tell you -- to be ready, there's times where it takes you a little bit to get into it, or you just don't have it."

When the Wild has it, good things happen, coach Bruce Boudreau reiterated Friday -- less than 12 hours after citing heightened zeal as the reason for his club's 6-4 comeback win against previously red-hot Nashville. Led by the level-headed likes of Staal, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, this isn't known as a sentimental bunch.

Video: Wild talks about playing with emotion

But that passion and emotion is there, players say, in different ways and different places, but present enough that a serene guy like Koivu can sit in front of his locker and reflect on the power of the psyche like he did Friday.

"I think ... even if you get older and you get more experience, I think sometimes you need that emotion to be better," the 13th-year veteran said. "I think it's not always a bad thing. Sometimes you get pissed off, and whatever it is is part of the game to me. You need that. If we don't have that, I don't think the fans like it, I don't think the players like it."

Be it joy, anger or some charged combination of the two, it's difficult for coaches and captains to gauge and impossible to measure precisely.

Some of it's external. A fired-up home crowd, a couple of quick third-period goals to erase a deficit like Thursday's; those are the types of things that cause an entire team of professionals to semi-dogpile on its bench after a game-sealing empty-net goal in the middle of November.

Video: NSH@MIN: Spurgeon nets empty-netter to seal win

"You can't decide, 'Hey, let's have emotions out there,'" Koivu said. "It just happens in certain plays. Sure, when you play at home and you get a couple quick goals, the crowd gets into it, everyone gets up."

Much of that comes from within. There are as many unique ways of self-motivation as there are home locker stalls at Xcel Energy Center. "There's a time and a place to get fired up, and you see some guys get fired up a little quicker than others," Suter said. "That's just part of the game; every player's different, and every leader leads in a different way. Every player shows emotion in a different way."

And from a group perspective, fans and media are only privy to a small sample of a team's personalities and demeanors.

Behind the curtain, there are bonds being formed as brothers, sons and fathers spend more time together than they do with their own families. Those kinds of connections breed collective emotional attributes.

"I don't think you guys know all of it," Koivu said to reporters. "When the doors are closed, I think there's emotions on it and there needs to be emotions and there's things that need to be handled inside of the team. Once you get out there [on the ice], I think you've got to be yourself."

But no matter their source, passion and personality have to be authentic.

"We've all had the careers we've had because of who we are," Suter said. "You try to change, and people see that as a front. Your teammates, they see that."

Added Koivu: "You can't fake it."

So it can't be conjured, but it can be encouraged. Exhibit A: Boudreau's decision to bench both his power-play units for malperformance Thursday. The wily bench boss has never been afraid to change lines or defensive pairings in an effort to draw better results.

"You do what you have to do," Boudreau said Friday with a slight grin. "Sometimes, you have to spur it on; hopefully somebody on the ice can create that emotion for you, but you'd like to believe it's there every night. So far, it got there for certain parts of the games, but we'd like to see it for 60 minutes."

And that's the next evolution for a club that's won four straight and hopes to position itself for a long-awaited postseason run. Minnesota's been outshot 397-257 in the first two periods of games this season, and a red-faced Boudreau has lamented slow starts on several occasions -- a sign that negative emotion can be just as powerful an influencer as the positive. 

"We have to find ways to get into games earlier," said Suter. "Some games, we're in it right away, and some, it takes us to get down a couple goals and then we figure it out. I hope that's a big stepping stone for us."

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