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Wild may look to Niederreiter to play shutdown role

by Dan Myers

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Minnesota Wild will count on two rookies and a 21-year old in a major defensive role in Game 4 of their Western Conference First Round series against the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday at Xcel Energy Center (9:30 p.m. ET; CNBC, TSN2, RDS2, ALT- FS-N, FS-WI).

Colorado leads the best-of-7 series 2-1.

With forward Matt Cooke facing possible suspension from the NHL for his knee-to-knee hit on Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie in Game 3, the Wild are expected to move Nino Niederreiter into Cooke's left wing spot on the third line next to center Erik Haula and right wing Justin Fontaine.

"There's some things we discussed, different scenarios we could have tried. Looking at how [Haula] and [Fontaine] played, trying to keep that intact," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "Obviously a good challenge for three young kids."

Cooke, Haula and Fontaine are largely credited with slowing Colorado's line of Gabriel Landeskog, Paul Stastny and Nathan MacKinnon in a 1-0 Game 3 win Monday. The MacKinnon line combined for 17 points in the first two games of the series played at Pepsi Center.

"They're fast guys, and I feel I can bring the physical play against that line," Niederreiter said.

With Cooke expected to be unavailable, Yeo wanted a big body who can skate and play a two-way game. Niederreiter played right wing on the fourth line in Game 3 but has been more comfortable on the left side all season.

"Adding a guy who can be strong on the puck, who's responsible defensively and can play a strong two-way game … was important to us," Yeo said. "We have confidence in those guys, so we're not going to try to hide anybody out here. If we feel it's not working, I'm comfortable with any line. I'm comfortable with any of our centermen."

Niederreiter has been adept all season at changing his role. Injuries and roster moves have had him playing on every line this season at one point or another, moving him from a scoring role to a checking one. Thursday, his two-way play will be an important factor in whether the Wild can even the series heading back to Denver for Game 5.

"To me, that's the sign of a good player. That's the sign of a guy who's going to have a good career," Yeo said. "He's not pigeon-holed. For a player like that, big strong, physical guy he has skill. I feel really good about how he's developed and I think it's been a good first year for him here."

With Niederreiter on the third line, fourth-line center Cody McCormick is expected to slide to right wing. Kyle Brodziak, who was a healthy scratch for the first time in his Wild career in Game 3, will be reinserted at center.

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