Joel Eriksson Ek knows good things happen when he crashes the net. He watched that play out in real time during Saturday’s win over the San Jose Sharks.
With the Wild locked in a 1-1 tie early in the game, Marcus Foligno corralled the puck in the neutral zone and flipped a pass over to Jordan Greenway, who fired a wrist shot on net. And while goaltender Martin Jones made the initial save, the puck fluttered chaotically into the air.
That’s when Eriksson Ek made his presence felt, locating the puck in midair, then using his body to guide it into the back of the net. A closer look at the sequence showed that Eriksson Ek actually used his chest to score.
That pregame soccer appears to be paying off.
“Yeah,” Eriksson said with a laugh. “It’s funny. I go out there (to play soccer) sometimes, and today I did. Maybe it had a little bit of a part of it.”
Like clockwork before every Wild game, the team’s official Twitter account sends out a clip of players in a circle juggling a soccer ball. It has become part of the pregame routine across the NHL, with many players choosing to partake.
Though the origin isn’t exactly clear, winger Marcus Johansson said he usually participates in the pregame soccer ritual, and noted that it helps with hand-eye coordination.
“It’s always something that most hockey players have done,” Johansson said. “It’s a good way to warm up and get the eyes focus in. You get to move and react and get going.”
What did he think of Eriksson Ek’s goal?
“Those count, too, right?” Johansson said with a smile. “It was smart of him to get it with his chest and not touch it with his hand. It was a good play by him.”
Asked about pregame soccer, coach Dean Evason said it wasn’t something he ever experienced as a player. He played more than 800 games from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s.
“It wasn’t part of our pregame routine,” Evason said. “But I think it’s awesome. They are using their feet and bouncing around and getting some skill work, as well as the hand-eye coordination.”
Maybe most importantly, Evason thinks it’s good for camaraderie. There’s never a dull moment when his players are trying to keep the soccer ball from touching the ground.
“They are out there and laughing and joking around together,” Evason said. “I think it’s a real good thing. Especially for the Europeans. They love their soccer. It was a huge goal for us, obviously.”
Nick Bjugstad was on the ice with the Wild during Monday’s morning skate. It marked the first time he has skated with his teammates since suffering an upper-body injury during an April 5 game against the Colorado Avalanche. While his presence was a step in the right direction, Bjugstad won’t play in Monday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes.
“Just day by day we’ll see how he feels,” Evason said. “It’s nice he was able to get out there with the guys. He will slowly progress into bumping and physicality, and when he’s ready, (head trainer) John Worley will tell us, and then we’ll make decisions from there.”