I don't know if there's any better way to describe Nino Niederreiter than bullish. The way he digs for pucks and moves them along the boards is the prototype of a modern NHL power forward. His accurate, hard wrist shot in clutch moments reminds us that he's got the potential of a #5 overall pick and give flashes of brilliance that are emerging again early in the Minnesota Wild season.
But more than anything, watching the way he pushes through checks and defense, the way he tries to put his entire team on his back is workman-like, determined, and bullish.
Game 5's pivotal moment came not from what that bullish style of play could do for the Wild, but what it couldn't. Throughout the night, Niederreiter put his skills on display during the Wild's first regulation loss of the season to the reeling, one-goal-in-four-games, zero-for-everything Anaheim Ducks. Being its first loss of the season, Sunday's game was a change of pace for the Wild. In another way, a more important way, the game was a change of pace for the Wild in the sense that it was their first, and by far most, complete game thus far. Through the first 20 minutes, the Wild drove play with a gritty forecheck, controlled pace, and Niederreiter provided a quick response to Anaheim's first goal.
By the middle of the second frame, however, the Wild had sunk once again into a one goal deficit, despite dominating chances. With time ticking down in the second period and the Wild trailing still by a goal, Niederreiter leaned into the zone, past reverse-Samson Ryan Getzlaf (because Samson's hair made him strong? and Ryan Getzlaf is balding but still strong? I'll stop now) and put his team on his back. He curled in at the dot, as he had done earlier in the period. A Duck laid down in front of him, as had happened before in the period. This time, however, Kevin Bieksa's stick caught the puck and sent Niederreiter flying, the puck lost and with it the hopes of a late second period comeback for the Wild.
Doesn't matter if you get the puck anymore. This is supposed to be a tripping penalty. #mnwild pic.twitter.com/6bbXtjDvgb— Alec Schmidt (@Schmitty_16) October 19, 2015
The Wild spent the rest of the period trying in vain to build momentum back up and to grab something, anything to carry into the third. Throughout the third period, though, the Ducks stifled chances and eventually dispatched the Wild from the west coast with fewer points than they deserved. Niederreiter's diving non-shot isn't just an emblem of how Sunday went, it's the point around which the game pivoted. It was proof positive that one player couldn't make the game -- at least, not unless his name is Parise.
I should note that a close second, for me at least, was the entirety of Jason Zucker's play. Maybe even more than the way Niederreiter played, Zucker worked to produce so many chances that barely registered on the score sheet. These fruitless chances were a mark of the game the Wild played. More important than that score sheet, however, is the irony of the complete game the Wild played, complete in nearly every sense of the word, but just not enough. In the end, that's the game Niederreiter played: complete and forceful, flashes of brilliance and determination, but ultimately not enough to put the puck in the net and keep his team in the game. When your team lives and dies on one player's effort, sometimes they die on that effort.