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Kunin making most of opportunity in Minnesota

Young forwards have been a bright spot early in Wild's season

by Kayleigh Jackson / Wild.com

ST. PAUL -- Luke Kunin has played exactly four games in the NHL. In those games, he's notched two points, five shots and nine hits.

His ice time is already growing, and so is the coaching staff's confidence in him. 

"He's a straight-line player. He finishes his checks, he works his tail off, and those are things you want," coach Bruce Boudreau said. After the team's 1-0 loss to Vancouver on Tuesday night, Boudreau had cited Kunin as one of the two best players of the game. 

Kunin has played an average of nearly 15 minutes per game. While his playing time has been boosted by the injuries sprinkled through the Wild's lineup, the 15th pick in the 2016 NHL Draft is trying to turn his inaugural NHL stint into a memorable first impression.

"You never want your teammates to be hurt," Kunin said. "But it's an opportunity for me and an opportunity to show what I can do so I'm just trying to make the most of it." 

At practice Wednesday, Kunin found himself on a line with Eric Staal and Tyler Ennis. Boudreau said he didn't think Staal's line had been particularly effective in the game against the Canucks, and Kunin was his solution. 

Kunin and Staal played together in the game against Calgary, and after another practice together Kunin felt like they had connected. "I thought we had some jump and we were buzzing out there," Kunin said Wednesday.

It was the latest stop on Kunin's journey up and down the lineup, though he's fit well wherever he's landed.

Video: Eriksson Ek, Kunin on Improvement

Early in Tuesday's game, Kunin moved from Matt Cullen's wing, where he began the night, to Joel Eriksson Ek's wing. The reason for the switch? Rookie Justin Kloos, who was taking part in his first NHL game. 

"I didn't want [Kloos] starting; I thought it might be too much for him," Boudreau said, so he subbed Kunin in for the first puck drop. 

After just four games, Kunin's been put into a position to both help out less experienced players and provide a boost for veterans. "When you step back and look at it, they are putting a lot of trust in you and a lot of confidence," Kunin said. 

"Getting the kind of minutes he's been getting, the way he's been playing he's only gonna get more," Boudreau said. "I think it's good for him and it's a good experience to learn." 


Keeping it loose

The team ended practice Wednesday with a shootout drill: a way to both focus on important game skills as well as to keep the atmosphere light and team bonds strong. 

"I thought today we had to have a little fun," Boudreau said of the shootout drill. "We had a little competition out here to try to keep them loose." 

Split into two groups -- most of the forwards versus the defensemen plus Chris Stewart and Jason Zucker -- players showed off in a mock shootout. The defensive group took the day, perhaps as much due to Stewart's constant cheering as Matt Dumba's several goals. 


Turning up the energy

Tuesday's game saw Minnesota dominate the first period and Vancouver the second; to move forward successfully, the Wild knows its play must be consistent and at a high level throughout the entire 60 minutes of play. 

"I think when we've been successful, like in Calgary (where the Wild won 4-2 Saturday), we were dialed in for the full 60," Kunin said. "We've just gotta be fully in."

Joel Eriksson Ek, another player whom Boudreau praised for his work against Vancouver, agreed. "We need to stick to our system," Eriksson Ek said. "We need to play with energy." 

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