Kevin Fiala was frustrated.
The Minnesota Wild were trailing the Vancouver Canucks by two goals in Game 3 of their qualification-round series. The winger's shot had missed its target, one of 10 wayward attempts for the game. As the whistle sounded to stop play, he buzzed Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom's crease, stuck out his right elbow and gave him a shove on the blocker that sent Markstrom flailing backward.
Canucks defenseman Troy Stecher immediately tried to tackle Fiala near the end boards, but the Wild forward slipped his grip. Vancouver center Brandon Sutter skated over and crushed Fiala from behind, sparking a pileup of bodies with 14:25 left in regulation.
Fiala didn't mind the physicality, in that sequence or through the course of the series.
"No," he told ESPN, "I like it."
What he didn't like was the double-minor penalty for roughing he earned for the incident. Or the slashing penalty he took with 2:25 left in the game, which allowed Elias Pettersson to clinch the win for Vancouver on the ensuing power play.
Fiala watched the replay of that goal from the penalty box, chewing on his mouthpiece as he stared at the highlight on a video screen above the rink. As the buzzer sounded to end the game moments later, he was on the bench, staring out at the ice, his tongue digging into the left corner of his mouth, his eyes darting around at his opponents as they celebrated. It was a look of remorse.
"I gotta eliminate those stupid penalties," Fiala said after the game. "They got to me today. Six minutes in the penalty box. That's too long. I've just gotta focus on the game. Everybody is better on the ice than in the penalty box. That's going to be my focus next game."
Whether or not the Wild rally from their 2-1 series deficit, this postseason has been an education for Fiala. He led the team with 54 points this season in just 64 games. That included 23 goals, matching a career high that he needed 80 games to reach in 2017-18. This was the first time he entered a playoff with his opponent focused on how to slow him down. This was the first time in his career where his boundless potential was finally manifesting as a top-line talent.
"I don't know if he's hit a next stride or if it's just a process for him," Wild coach Dean Evason said. "It's taken him some time to mature as a man and as a hockey player. He's become more comfortable with his teammates and with his surroundings. There's a lot of different factors that go into it."
Fiala joined the Wild in February 2019 when the Nashville Predators, who drafted him 11th overall in 2014, traded him for forward Mikael Granlund. It was one of the few trades made by former Wild GM Paul Fenton, who infamously lasted only a year in the job before being replaced by Bill Guerin last summer. His acquisition of Fiala has been retroactively praised.
"He has an electric stick," Fenton said at the time of the trade. "He has a unique skill set. We were trying to get younger and faster. He fits here for what we're trying to do here."
Nashville GM David Poile, with whom Fenton worked for years as an assistant general manager, had a curious reaction to the trade. While he praised Granlund as veteran player with a more complete skill set than Fiala, he acknowledged the possibility that this trade could come back to haunt him.
"Kevin has shown flashes of being a really good player. But a little bit of inconsistency," Poile said. "There's no question he'll to be a goal scorer. So we're going to have to be hearing and reading about that for years to come, because he's such a young player. If Kevin plays on a more consistent basis, [this trade is] not going to be a perfect situation."
Early on, Fiala wasn't giving Poile any seller's remorse. He had seven points in 19 games for Minnesota after the trade, a lower points-per-game average than he had in 64 games with the Predators that season. The start of the 2019-20 season was disastrous: one assist in eight games, leading to a healthy scratch from then-coach Bruce Boudreau in mid-October. "I just think we can get more out of him," Boudreau said at the time.
His production picked up steadily after that, but it was his last 19 games when Fiala started tearing up the league: 14 goals in 19 games, along with 12 assists for 26 points.
"Looking back at my season, I was happy," Fiala said. "I wasn't happy with the start, but as it got going, it got better and better. At the end, it was going great. My teammates were helping me make it look easy. Without them, I wouldn't have looked that great."
But as the playoffs have shown, scoring is only part of the assignment for Fiala. He had three goals in three games for the Wild, including a team-high 15 shots on goal. But taking himself off the ice for six minutes in the third period wasn't acceptable, in his mind.
"I've gotta stay focused, 60 minutes-plus. I can't take those penalties," he said.
It's all part of a process for Fiala, one that could cement him as part of a new core of young offensive forwards for Minnesota -- including Russian phenom Kirill Kaprizov, who finally arrives on the ice for the Wild next season.
Evason has always liked Fiala's game. He's now enjoying watching the young winger become a foundational player for his team.
"I saw him play firsthand when he first came over to play, in the American Hockey League in Milwaukee. He was the exact same player that he is today, from a skills side," he said. "[Becoming a star] is not a light switch that gets turned on. It's a process that he's gone through, that he's been committed to, in order to better himself and to help his hockey club have an opportunity to have success. I'm proud of what Kevin's done."