ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Dean Evason had never heard the Xcel Energy crowd so loud, so electric as it was on Friday night.
And the roars may have reached a crescendo in the starting lineup, when Joel Eriksson Ek’s name was announced. That’s how important the Swedish two-way center is to the Wild, and how much his return from a right leg injury was expected.
So when Eriksson Ek’s night ended 19 seconds into his shift, grimacing and slowly skating towards the bench, there was an ominous feeling among his teammates and coaches.
It didn’t look good.
“It was brutal,” said winger Marcus Foligno. “The guy is amazing. It sucks. He was obviously in a lot of pain, and knowing that he can’t go is something serious.
Evason said Ek will be evaluated “thoroughly” in the coming days and they won’t know more until then. But for a player who made his way a few weeks after what looked like a serious leg injury, it felt like a considerable setback. Maybe he came back too soon.
“It’s sad, isn’t it? Evason said. “Obviously disappointing. We all know who he is, on the outside and especially on the inside, and his willingness to come back with his teammates was tremendous. It’s difficult, that’s for sure. »
What’s crazy is that Ek got injured again on what seemed like a harmless play. There was no contact. He came out of the face-off circle, something he’s done countless times in his career. He pushed back the buckle, then hobbled, grimacing. His night was over before it started. With Ek out, Matt Boldy had to return to center and the team played with 11 forwards the rest of the night.
“He fought so hard to come back so early,” goalkeeper Filip Gustavsson said. “That something happened to him so soon is sad.”
When Ek received a slapshot from Evgeni Malkin to the lower leg on April 6, collapsing on the ice, some wondered if he would be back in time to even play a playoff game. The team initially tagged him week-to-week, so it was surprising he was back on the ice nine days later. Ek has skated five of the last seven days, working hard on his stops and starts, his turns (and his contacts).
He was also doing extensive research to find a faster cure.
“He’s a warrior,” center Ryan Hartman said. “The last few days, I don’t know how many days, he’s been googling stuff on how to recover faster. It’s sauna work or breathing work, do anything to come back sooner. That’s why he is who he is, why he’s such a big part of our team.
“He probably takes 15-minute cold baths and just meditates,” Foligno said. “He’s an animal – he just recovers fast.”
Last week, when Ek’s return seemed closer, his teammates marveled at his tenacity. Once he was cleared to play, it was all about pain tolerance.
“There are definitely guys who can do it and guys who can’t,” Foligno said. “Ekker has Wolverine blood. He is a bit special. That’s the thing that, for him, I think is just pain. If he can tolerate it, then he will play.
The Wild, up 2-1 in the best-of-seven first-round series with Dallas, are now looking at the possibility of another extended absence for Ek. The team doesn’t have a lot of center depth as it is, and Ek is the one taking on the toughest assignments and the most meaningful minutes. He is a key cog on the penalty kill, the presence in front of the net on the power play. He is one of the few players in the Wild to be irreplaceable.
If there’s any solace for Minnesota, it’s how unique Ek is in terms of his ability to recover and rehabilitate, and play through pain. As winger Brandon Duhaime said earlier this week:
“He’ll tell you it’s a machine. So if anyone can come back from what he did, it would be him.
(Picture: David Berding/Getty Images)