No one really expected this of Joel Eriksson Ek.
Sure, the Minnesota Wild centerman was set to be given more of the spotlight with both Mikko Koivu and Eric Staal departing the team last summer — opening up the center depth chart — but it was hard to imagine that he would be able to score more than double his previous career-high in goals.
With 19 in the regular season, the 24-year-old entered the biggest playoff series of his career on Sunday and was able to add to his total.
In the opening minutes of the first frame of the extra period, Eriksson Ek finished the game, scoring the only goal and giving the Wild a 1-0 series lead.
JOEL. ERIKSSON EK. WITH THE OVERTIME WINNER.— Hockey Wilderness (@hockeywildernes) May 16, 2021
WILD LEAD VEGAS 1-0 IN THE SERIES. pic.twitter.com/VeLVdGFl5F
“We see it every day in practice,” Wild head coach Dean Evason said after the opening win. “We have since I got here, his ability to shoot the puck, his ability to skate, his ability to make plays is there. It’s just taken some time. It’s taken some different learning experiences and going through it and recognizing that he can be that guy and [have] confidence, right?
“It doesn’t happen all of a sudden. It’s a process that every pro goes through to figure out, ‘Geez, maybe I can score at this level.’ He hasn’t changed his game. His game stayed the exact same. He’s just probably got a little more confidence and knows that he can score and is.”
As part of the next Wild core, Eriksson Ek will surely be in Minnesota for as long as possible. His specific skill set of defensive reliability — that has been top-tier for a while now — getting a surge from his newly found offense and scoring is only a good thing from here on out.
Sure, maybe he doesn’t continue scoring a goal on 16 percent of his shots, but considering that all 19 of them came at even-strength this past season, you can certainly defend his ability to shoot the puck.
Aside from Eriksson Ek, the main reason why the Wild were able to come away with the win on Sunday was goaltender Cam Talbot earning his 42-save shutout. Despite his immense play, he was full of praise for Eriksson Ek.
“I think those guys are good at what they do on the ice and off the ice, they’re usually the quiet ones,” Talbot said. “He’s good at what he does. He goes out there and knows how to get under the other team’s skin. Guys like that are extremely effective this time of the year. That’s what we’ve come to expect.”
This offense rocketing its way through any opponent is why Eriksson Ek is getting some nods for Selke Trophy nominations, and while he might not be able to come out on top, finishing as a finalist can be the cherry on top of this Wild regular season.
But that was the season and now we’re just focusing on the playoffs. Joel knows that and only wants more.
“I mean, this is the most fun time to play at,” he said. “Playoffs, a lot of people in the stands, too, you just get that extra energy of playing in front of fans and how big the games are. It’s fun.”