Frederick Gaudreau and Kevin Fiala have been joined at the hip since the drop of the puck for this Minnesota Wild season. It was a pairing that head coach Dean Evason conjured up almost immediately and has stuck with through a lot of uncertainty and doubts, but the team is reaping the rewards from it now.
On Thursday, as the team visited the Dallas Stars, it was a two-man show. No other player produced anything — nothing came to fruition unless it was off either one of Fiala’s or Gaudreau’s sticks.
With the help of tertiary linemate Matt Boldy on the first goal of the game to get things rolling in Texas, Gaudreau was able to quickly set up Fiala for a net-front tap-in just minutes into the game. And to reclaim the lead, the pair combined on the penalty kill to give the Swiss skater his first shorthanded goal of his career — which is honestly surprising.
The duo themselves don’t really know what makes them connect so well.
“I don’t know why, I think we can understand each other pretty well,” Gaudreau said after the 3-2 overtime win in Dallas. “I can sense when Kevin is going towards the offense, too, and I can back him up. I think we read off of each other pretty well, but he’s so speedy and strong and he makes good reads with his stick, too, so it’s easy to play with him on the penalty kill.”
Gaudreau has always been known as a defense-first center, so it balance that with the rush offense that Fiala is known to provide, has been an interesting development throughout the majority of this season. Almost as if the center knows his role on the line and not to get overzealous with his offensive chances. Keeping back and making the smart reads — using the ability to read offenses without the puck, to then turn it and use that same skill to make offensive plays with possession.
“I mean, he’s done a great job the whole season,” Fiala said. “Defensively, he’s got a great stick. He helps a lot. He saves us a lot in the defensive zone. He’s always there and offensive, too. You can see it now. The OT goal, he passes to me (for) both (my goals) today. Great passes.”
It’s not just the players that are noticing, but the man that put them together several months ago is noticing their recent improved connection.
“He’s been real good, hasn’t he?” Evason said. “Obviously, Kevin scored (twice). But [Gaudreau] just does everything. He’s such a good defender. Just an intelligent player. Great hands. Good speed. Good playmaker and wonderful teammate.
“Freddy Gaudreau protects (Fiala), not only on the PK,” Evason continued. “I’m not going to tell Kevin this and hopefully he doesn’t watch (this), but you have to give guys like that a little bit of rein, and you hope that they’re with people that understand, which Freddy does. Kevin might anticipate — I almost said cheat, but I’m going to say anticipate — and try to go (offense) and Freddy won’t. He’ll allow Kevin to do that anticipating, and he’ll take care of the rest.
“When Kevin gets a little excited to go on offense, that’s when he starts cheating a little bit. I think he’s recognized that. Obviously, we’ve talked to him a lot, but more importantly, he’s understanding how and when to go and that he’s taking care of business and not just trying to score goals, because this time of year you can’t do that. You can’t do that or it ends up in our net, and he’s done a good job of recognizing that.”
Gaudreau does seem to give the always-offensive Fiala a little bit of responsibility. And it’s not like the winger doesn’t have the skating ability to overcome any delayed rush, even if it means waiting for his center to make the smarter-but-less-reactive play.
There is just something about them that works, and the Wild have now found multiple diamonds at the center position to compliment their top-end wingers. If you saw that Gaudreau and Ryan Hartman are two of the three centers in a team’s top-nine before this season, you would assume something has gone astray and this team is purposely aiming for the draft lottery. But it just works; Minnesota understands what their system and what their talented players need in linemates and they went out and got those players on the cheap.
It has not been recognized enough just how well of a job this team has done in finding quality players that contribute regularly enough seemingly out of nowhere. Both were signed as unrestricted free agents to salaries under $2 million. Seemingly impossible in this day and age of superstars, but the Wild just went out and did it.
We can clamor on and on about a certain Austrian-born center prospect that should be in the NHL, but honestly, right now things are just working as designed and above any expectation. The line with Gaudreau, Fiala, and Boldy, have scored 68.42 percent of the goals while they are on the ice at 5-on-5, and are controlling 54.79 percent of the expected goals share at that same game state. Incredible underlying numbers to bolster the decision to put them together.
There will be a time and place for these two to eventually part ways, but things are clicking on a higher level than ever before and they’re doing it just weeks before the playoffs. This might be fun.