ANAHEIM -- Saku Koivu remembers talking with Bruce Boudreau early in the season, and it wasn't necessarily small talk with the coach known as "Gabby."
No, this was delicate because it concerned what role Koivu would have at age 38 and playing in his 17th NHL season. The veteran was expected to compete for the second-line center spot on the Anaheim Ducks, but at this point in his career it was clear that the former Montreal Canadiens captain was better suited for, ahem, the third line.
Tension? Awkward silence?
"He accepted quite well," Boudreau said. "I said if we want to be good he has to be the third-line center. I mean, he's played a lot like a first-line center a lot of times. But his role hasn't changed except for the guys he's played with."
On a gut feeling, Boudreau put Koivu between Daniel Winnik and Andrew Cogliano. All three were invigorated with purpose, and Koivu made it easy for Boudreau.
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"I took it more as a challenge to prove that we can get the chemistry and we can get the line going," Koivu said. "I spoke to Bruce about it early in the season, and we didn't have a different view of this thing. It was more of a positive challenge for our line, all three of us, to show what we can do."
The three have risen to the challenge and become the common thread in Anaheim's success. They are the only line the ever-tinkering Boudreau has kept intact this season, and their two-way capability has helped vault the Ducks into the second-best record in the NHL going into Wednesday night against the No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks.
Blackhawks star Patrick Kane hadn't seen much film of the line but they're on his radar.
"I'm sure they'll be trying to shut down whoever they're up against, but at the same time they can score, too, so you've got to be aware of that," Kane said.
Cogliano, Winnik and Koivu are ranked in the top 40 in plus-minus. At the other end, Winnik and Cogliano are on pace to match career highs in goals, and Koivu's 22 points through 28 games marked his best start since the 1996-97 season.
"The great thing is, you can count on them consistently," Boudreau said. "Very rarely has one of them had a bad game, let alone two or three as a line. It's been a real big treat that you can have them either scoring or defending at any point in time."
While Koivu embraces a different role, Winnik and Cogliano are having bounce-back seasons.
Winnik was largely forgotten in free agency after a brief stint with the San Jose Sharks -- his third team in a near six-month period. San Jose signed Adam Burish instead, and Winnik waited and waited before he landed a two-year deal with Anaheim on July 20.
The free-agent slight motivated Winnik, and he responded with four goals in his first five games with the Ducks. He has also taken care of his own zone with a plus rating in 25 of 28 games.
But don't use the R-word for this part of Winnik's career.
"I don't think I really had to resurrect it," he said. "People have asked me too -- four teams now in six years, but it was really three teams in not even six months. … Hopefully this is a landing place for me, and so far it's going well."
Cogliano's arrival in Anaheim was seen as the Ducks' answer at third-line center. But Cogliano struggled at faceoffs and got moved to wing. By the end of the season he was relegated to the fourth line, and he scored twice in his final 33 games.
This is his first full season playing wing after a center role with the Edmonton Oilers. He has showcased his speed more and found his scoring touch with 10 goals in a 17-game stretch -- three fewer than he had all last season. Cogliano entered Wednesday tied with Jonathan Toews for the League lead with a plus-16 rating on the road.
Boudreau has paired Cogliano with fellow speedster Emerson Etem to form a formidable duo up front on the penalty-killing unit.
"I think I just came into [this season] with a clearer mind," Cogliano said. "I had a good conversation with Bruce after the year. Last year … it was a bit disjointed. You're coming to a new team. It's already a new atmosphere and new things going on. Then there's a coaching change and couple of injuries and you have to move to different places.
"Bruce told me this year he wanted to give me more of a specific spot, a specific role, and I think it's worked."
The last time Anaheim had a definitive third line was the famed shutdown line of Travis Moen, Samuel Pahlsson and Rob Niedermayer from its 2007 Stanley Cup team. The Winnik-Koivu-Cogliano edition doesn't have a catchy nickname, nor does it really consider itself a true shutdown line. But it works.
"I think all our styles are similar," Cogliano said. "We want to play both ends of the rink, but doing that in an offensive way, which is playing in the other team's zone. So far, so good. Over the next 20 games, hopefully we can continue to play together and build more chemistry."