SAN JOSE -- At the beginning of the season, the line of Mikko Koivu, Jason Zucker, and Nino Niederreiter was pacing the Minnesota Wild offensively.
The line accounted for eight even-strength goals through the first 15, and lived in the opposing team's offensive zone.
But then the production began to ease up, Zach Parise sustained a knee injury, and Koivu's line began to play against every team's top defensive pairing and shutdown forwards. The line skated more minutes, and was thrust into a more featured role.
"When Zach went down, now all of a sudden those guys are facing some tougher matchups," Head Coach Mike Yeo said. "We went on the road, those guys are playing some bigger minutes, they start to struggle a little bit, and all of a sudden they lose their confidence, and all of a sudden they start pressing."
Over the past nine games, the three forwards have combined for four assists and no goals. Against the Arizona Coyotes on Friday, Yeo tried using both Thomas Vanek and Charlie Coyle on the line to give it a jumpstart.
"They've gotten away from their game, and to me, they have to understand that getting back to the work ethic, getting back to that offensive zone play type of game that they were doing at the start of the year is the only way out of it," Yeo said.
The line will attempt to recapture its scoring touch on Saturday when the Wild plays the San Jose Sharks. The puck possession and in-zone time haven't waned, but the goal scoring has.
"Your confidence can go the other way pretty easily, but just knowing that the coach has your back, and your teammates have your back and will support you in every situation," Jason Pominville said.
After the line was held scoreless in Arizona, Yeo pointed toward Pominville as a player who recently worked out of a slump. Pominville was held goalless in the first 21 games of the season, but has since scored three goals in his past six games.
"The guys were great with me when I went through it," Pominville said. "The coaches were good as well. They talked, they showed us clips, they showed me where I needed to be better, and at the end of the day, it really helped me."
His scoring touch has coincided with Parise's return to the lineup; Parise played his first game after sustaining his injury one game before Pominville scored his first of the season.
Those two forwards along with Mikael Granlund have begun to click, and have accounted for four goals in the seven games with Parise back on their line.
"We're defending well; that's the biggest thing," Pominville said. "Earlier on in the year we were giving up too much, and now we've defended well. We haven't given up as many rush opportunities, and it's led to us having the puck more."
The hope now is that Koivu's line can follow suit. A healthy Parise eases the burden of those matchups, especially on the road.
"I like the way that we're defending right now, I like the structure, and the way that we're playing without the puck," Yeo said. "But we're at a point where our game could start to go the other way."
The Wild has outshot its opponent in four of its past five games, earning a point in each of its past six (3-0-3).
The puck possession has been present, while the finishing touch has not. The Wild has scored 1.83 goals per game over the point streak, as opposed to the 3.10 goals per game it averaged over the first 21 games this season. (The Wild has also averaged 3.21 goals per game in games it had earned at least a point prior to its current point streak.)
Yeo said all of that is why the Wild is currently at a critical juncture in its season.
"We've had a couple of OT losses now in a row because offensively we haven't been burying a lot of pucks right now," he said. "Does that part of your game start to slip? Or do you keep that part of your game, and build onto it by being a little bit better defensively.
"That to me has got to be our focus right now."
Here is the Wild projected lineup:
Jason Zucker – Mikko Koivu – Nino Niederreiter
Zach Parise – Mikael Granlund – Jason Pominville
Thomas Vanek – Charlie Coyle – Justin Fontaine
Chris Porter – Erik Haula – Ryan Carter
Ryan Suter – Jared Spurgeon
Marco Scandella – Jonas Brodin
Nate Prosser – Matt Dumba