Frozen by the virus shutdown but not forgotten was Kevin Fiala‘s emergence, a surge that gave the Minnesota Wild a glimpse of the go-to scorer they have lacked for much of their history.
Emelia Parise will remember it as well as anyone.
Zach Parise‘s daughter became quite the fan as her father’s teammate racked up 14 goals and 12 assists over the last 18 games before NHL play was halted. When school was still in session earlier this year, Parise’s 6-year-old twins, Emelia and Jaxson, took part in a pick-a-local-sports-hero project with their classmates who were well aware of Parise’s occupation.
”I’d say 90% of them wrote Zach Parise’s their favorite. Except for my daughter. She wrote Kevin Fiala,” Parise said recently. ”So that’s how things are going in my household right now.”
Who could blame her? The 23-year-old left wing had already matched his career best with 23 goals and blown by his personal assists record (31). Fiala leads the league with four game-winning goals.
”He’s been playing awesome for us,” Parise said. ”He was on a tear before this thing ended up happening, so hopefully he can keep that momentum.”
If the 2019-20 season ever resumes, Fiala’s sequestering spot at his summer home in Gothenburg, Sweden, ought to help him recapture some of that mojo. There, society has operated under fewer restrictions, allowing Fiala the opportunity for daily ice time. He has skated with fellow NHL players Anton Blidh, Pierre Engvall and John Klingberg to try to stay in shape.
”It’s very important for me to be consistent and just continue like I finished, if it continues or if it’s going to start next season, you know?” Fiala said on Wednesday on a video conference call with reporters. ”I’m comfortable I can do that.”
He later added: ”I don’t want it to be just one season. I have a lot of work to do, and I’m still a young player. My career is hopefully still long.”
The only pure scorer with true take-over-a-game ability the Wild have had in their two decades is Marian Gaborik, who had 38 goals in 2005-06 and 42 in 2007-08. The only other Wild player to ever top the 35-goal mark was Eric Staal, with 42 goals in 2017-18. Whenever the NHL gets the green light to stage games again, the spotlight will be on Fiala as he attempts to continue his development into the top-line star the Wild have been waiting for.
”He’s the guy where fans are starting to get out of their seats now,” goalie Alex Stalock said last month before the shutdown. ”Not only can he do it, with the moves and be a defenseman, but the puck finds the back of the net, and that’s not easy to do.”
Fiala’s production in February and March provided some validation for former general manager Paul Fenton’s otherwise unsatisfying 15 months on the job. Acquired just before the trade deadline from Nashville for another underperforming first-round draft pick, right wing Mikael Granlund, Fiala finished with only 13 goals in 83 games between the Predators and the Wild.
This season started similarly slow for him, as the Wild fell immediately into a big hole in the Western Conference standings. Fiala didn’t score until November. Over a 17-game stretch from Dec. 17 through Feb. 1, he had only one goal. He began to find a groove after that, though, with those slick stick skills and keen ice vision coming to the surface and helping the Wild climb back into the playoff chase.
When coach Bruce Boudreau was fired on Feb. 14, the promotion of Dean Evason to replace him gave Fiala the comfort of a familiar voice who already knew his game inside and out. They played three seasons together in the AHL in Milwaukee, Nashville’s primary affiliate.
”Honestly, I didn’t have the patience sometimes, so we got sometimes into a fight,” Fiala said, ”but when I look back, I was always happy I did it that way, and I was happy he was my coach, because he taught me a lot of things.”
Evason’s bid to shed the interim tag and become the next bench boss has been held up by the pandemic. His connection with Fiala sure won’t hurt his candidacy.
”The team was rolling,” Fiala said. ”We had some huge wins in the end, and just one point right now outside of the playoffs, especially with that start we had, we want to get back.”