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Wild's Niederreiter finding his stride

ST. PAUL -- Wild winger Nino Niederreiter emphasized before the start of this season the importance of taking the next step in his development. Aside from it being a contract year, he knew in order for the Wild to contend, he had to be better.

Dec 11, 2016; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild forward Erik Haula (56) celebrates a goal by forward Nino Niederreiter (22) in the second period against the St Louis Blues at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 11, 2016; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild forward Erik Haula (56) celebrates a goal by forward Nino Niederreiter (22) in the second period against the St Louis Blues at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
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ST. PAUL - Wild winger Nino Niederreiter emphasized before the start of this season the importance of taking the next step in his development. Aside from it being a contract year, he knew in order for the Wild to contend, he had to be better.

Although it took a month or so to get going, Niederreiter has been absolutely feeling it as of late. He has 12 points in his past 12 games, including two assists Thursday night as the Wild earned a 5-2 win over the Nashville Predators. He has been a big reason the Wild are riding a season-high six-game winning streak.

"I was really happy in the first period," coach Bruce Boudreau said after Thursday's win. "I thought in the first (period) he was a real horse."

That has been the story of the past month for Niederreiter, who has tried to keep things simple in his game. He uses his big body to his benefit, while also emphasizing shooting more. He also has been creative with the puck this season, especially whenever he's playing opposite fellow big-bodied winger Charlie Coyle.

"I'm just trying to focus on my game, trying to protect the puck down low," he said. "I'm trying to get pucks on the net when I can. And I think communication helps a lot. That has been the key right now."

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Niederrieter is on pace for 22 goals and 34 assists. That would be a career high for Niederreiter, who has steadily developed since being traded from the New York Islanders to the Wild before the 2013-14 season. In his first season with the Wild, he had 36 points (14 goals, 22 assists). He followed that with 37 points (24-13) in the second season. And last season he finished with 43 points (20-23).

His current pace that would put him at 56 points at season's end would smash his previous high. The Wild have needed every one of those points as they battle for position in the Central Division

"He has been really good lately," defenseman Jonas Brodin said. "He has been big for us."

Niederreiter has to continue to play well for the Wild.

"I knew who he was," center Eric Staal said when asked what he knew about Niederreiter before joining forces before the season. "I played against him enough to know he was no fun to play against. He (penalty kills) hard. He is a physical, big, strong guy. He is an important piece to what we got here."

Kuemper getting his shot

It appears that backup goaltender Darcy Kuemper will get his first start in more than two weeks Saturday afternoon at the Xcel Energy Center when the Wild play the Arizona Coyotes.

Kuemper hasn't played since Nov. 29, when the Wild lost 5-4 to Vancouver on the road. Boudreau went back to starter Devan Dubnyk after that loss, and the Wild have scored points in every game since.

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"It's been fun to be a part of it," Kuemper said of the six-game winning streak. "Now I get the chance to really be a part of it. It's going to be fun. There are a lot of good feelings in here. We want to keep the ball rolling. I'm just going to try to do my part."

Kuemper said it's challenging to stay engaged when going long stretches without in-game action. That said, he's been in this position before.

"You have to focus more in practice to make sure to stay sharp," he said. "It's a little bit harder when there are breaks in between. I've been doing it the last couple years. I know what I have to do to prepare."

Nov 21, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Minnesota Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper (35) faces a shot by Dallas Stars defenseman Jordie Benn (24) during the third period at the American Airlines Center. The Stars defeat the Wild 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 21, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Minnesota Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper (35) faces a shot by Dallas Stars defenseman Jordie Benn (24) during the third period at the American Airlines Center. The Stars defeat the Wild 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Related Topics: MINNESOTA WILDHOCKEY
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