After breaking his leg late last season, Wild’s Joel Eriksson Ek hits 20 goals again

ST. PAUL, Minn. – What might have been?

Marcus Foligno thinks he knows how the Wild’s fate would have changed last spring in a first-round series against Dallas Stars had their most irreplaceable player, Joel Eriksson Ek, not blocked that Evgeni Malkin shot and broken his leg with five games left in the regular season.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that it would have been a different outcome,” Foligno said after Tuesday’s 5-3 win over the Washington Capitals, a game in which Eriksson Ek’s eventual winning goal gave him 20 goals for a third consecutive season. “I mean, he ate so many minutes up. He’s a game-changer. He can really tick off a lot of guys who are skill players on the other team, and at the same time, he can put it in the back of their net.

“He’s one of the better — if not the best — 200-foot players in the game.”

Eriksson Ek, the 2015 first-round pick in his eighth season and Wild’s perennial fitness champ every single training camp, worked his you-know-what off last summer to rehab. And as good as his left leg finally felt late in the offseason, he still wondered coming into the season how it would hold up.

But right from the outset, Eriksson Ek has been the Wild’s most consistent forward. He’s on a 35-goal pace, his 20 goals tied for 12th amongst NHL centers and his 179 shots ranking third amongst centermen behind only Hart Trophy candidates Nathan MacKinnon and Auston Matthews.

And after a bit of an offense slump late last month into this one, Eriksson Ek has erupted the past five games with five goals, five assists, 20 shots and a plus-11 goal differential with him on the ice. The Wild have won four of those five games and three in a row.

Naturally, when reporters wanted Eriksson Ek to rave about himself after Tuesday’s game, he said, “I’d rather talk about the team.”

“How last year ended was probably not the best way, but everything feels good,” Eriksson Ek said about himself, reluctantly. “So it’s fun to play. … I mean, you grow as a player trying to figure out your way into the league. Everybody has different timelines. But for me, I’m happy to (score 20 goals) and I’m just trying still to find ways to score more and then be a more consistent player.”

There are few more courageous players who have ever worn Wild green than Eriksson Ek. This man is a human punching bag as he persistently drives the net and drives defenders absolutely bonkers. Eriksson Ek always stands up for himself and certainly did that and more Tuesday when defenseman Joel Edmundson kept pushing him as he skated away from Darcy Kuemper’s vicinity.

Finally, a ticked off Eriksson Ek turned around and went to town by punching back and spewing a bunch of barbs the Washington player’s way.

“He’s a menace to play against,” coach John Hynes said. “He’s just a big, strong guy (who) plays in the hard areas. Guys are fed up with him and giving him shots behind the play because he’s so hard to play against. But his net front presence, his willingness to go there, not only his willingness to go there, his effectiveness, has been really impressive.”

Hynes was hired after Thanksgiving, so he’s still getting to know the man who turns 26 next week. Clas Eriksson has known his son his entire life and knows how “stubborn” he is.

So when Joel Eriksson Ek’s first time on the ice after offseason leg surgery didn’t go as well as he hoped, there was some concern. It was late June at their hometown rink in Karlstad, when Eriksson Ek started his recovery from the fractured fibula.

“He was a little bit worried when he first stepped on the ice,” Clas said. “He hoped it’d feel better than he did. But it got better and better. He relaxed, and (thought), ‘This is going to work.’”

Clas, a former pro hockey player, and his wife, Anna Ek, were in the stands of Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday to see their son’s two-point performance. They saw how much work the two-way center put in over the summer to get back, so this was gratifying for the whole family.

Anna, Joel and Clas Eriksson Ek. (Michael Russo / The Athletic)

“Of course you don’t know if it’s going to work when you have an injury like that,” Clas said. “But he’s stubborn. He put in the work. He put in the hours to get ready. Of course we’re glad when you see it’s working out like it has.”

Foligno, who used to be a mainstay on a line with Eriksson Ek, has been reunited with him the past two games. Matt Boldy is on the right, and Foligno chipped in a goal and an assist Tuesday.

“He’s a beast,” Foligno said of Eriksson Ek. “He’s been so good, five-on-five, power play, penalty kill — he does it all. He’s one of our best, if not our best, players every night.”

Rookie defenseman Brock Faber is Eriksson Ek’s stallmate. No way that’s a coincidence. Eriksson Ek is such a positive influence and somebody any young player would want to emulate, so it’s no surprise the Wild assigned him the stall next to Eriksson Ek.

“Everyone kind of feeds off his energy and his grit,” said Faber, who scored the game’s first goal Tuesday. “He’s such a skilled player, but he’s always in the battle, he’s always getting hit in the face, always working his ass off, and we all feed off that. As a young guy in this league, I look up to the way he works.

“He’s such an all-around player. Every part of his game is so solid and above and beyond solid. … It’s a hard league and he makes it look easy. He makes guys look small, guys look little, guys look slow. The way he works is incredible.”

Eriksson Ek’s parents are in town all week, watching their son play live for just the second time this season (the first was during the Wild’s two-game trip to Stockholm in mid-November for the NHL Global Series). Their hope is they’ll see a couple more wins against Nashville and Anaheim before the Wild hit their bye week, then All-Star break.

It wasn’t long ago when their son called them distressed in April. Eriksson Ek tried to make a comeback in the Stars series but that lasted one shift.

“He’d do anything to play those games,” Clas said. “Of course, he was hurt. He was trying as hard as he could to get ready. When it didn’t work, he was sad. He was heartbroken. He knew they had a chance to take (the Stars).”

As Foligno said, Eriksson Ek – the three-time 20-goal scorer and one of the league’s hardest-working combatants — is “on the map now. Everyone knows it’s a really tough night against him.”

“If you see his first couple years here, maybe you didn’t think he’d reach that height,” Clas said. “But he’s always been a player who studies the game and wants to learn all the stages he’s been at. To be able to do that, you have to have the kind of players around you now to be able to score those goals.”

Eriksson Ek joked that he never scored 20 goals in Sweden because they didn’t play close to an 82-game schedule. He also joked that he got punched in the face just as often there, “but I had a cage back then” to protect his now nightly bruised and battered face.

Anna Ek finds it hard to stomach all the punches his son endures, but let’s be honest, he brings it upon himself because he is so, so gutsy and never shies from driving the dirtiest spots on the ice.

Mom and Dad, who are staying with Joel at his Minneapolis condo, couldn’t have been more proud to watch their boy hit the 20-goal milestone yet again Tuesday.

More importantly, it came in victorious fashion.

“Every time I get to see them, it’s awesome,” Eriksson Ek said. “It doesn’t really matter hopefully how I play. I hope they still love me when I get home.”

That’s not ever a question.

In fact, Clas said, smiling, “Maybe we’ll cook him some Swedish food.”

(Top photo:  Nick Wosika / USA Today)

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