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Depth At Forward Breeds Confidence

by Kelly Erickson / Minnesota Wild

Thirteen games after sustaining a foot contusion while blocking a shot in St. Louis, Zach Parise finally had to heed his health and take time to heal.

Parise missed only one of those 13 games before stepping out of the lineup on Dec. 23. He went on to miss 15 games. Five contests after Parise was sidelined, Mikko Koivu took a shot off the ankle, fracturing it in a Jan. 4 tilt with the Capitals. He missed 17 games — and the Olympics — after undergoing surgery.

With their injuries overlapping for most of January, the Wild played without both its captain and one of its alternate captains for eight games.

But they weren’t the only forwards to miss time this season. In the second game of the season, Charlie Coyle sustained a knee injury that sidelined him for 12 games. Center Mikael Granlund has missed a total of 17 contests this season with upper-body injuries. He was out of the lineup from late November until mid December and finished the regular season out of the lineup since March 31. Jason Zucker, who stepped in while Parise and Koivu were out, sustained leg injury Feb. 7 and has since been shut down for the season.

Injuries are a part of the game and, most often, unavoidable but every time a player was sidelined for the Wild another stepped in, often to great success.

“I think that’s confidence for the whole team when you know you have depth. I think we’ve proved that throughout the year,” Koivu said. “We’ve had some injuries, which is a part of the game, but every single time there were guys stepping up and doing things for the team that we needed to get it done. It’s definitely a good feeling as you go into the playoffs.”

When the Captain was out, Coyle slid back to center while Granlund stepped onto the first line. When Granlund was most recently sidelined, fellow Finn Erik Haula was called upon with impressive results.

Haula, who is typically a top-six forward, has spent much of his time with the Wild on the third or fourth line in a defense-minded role. But, when Granlund left the Wild’s March 31 tilt with Los Angeles early, Haula filled in between Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson. He immediately contributed, picking up an assist on a Moulson third-period goal, which launched a 3-2 comeback win. He continued to flourish the remainder of the regular season, tallying three goals and three assists for six points over six games.

The former Golden Gopher exemplifies the Wild’s added depth this year—something it hopes to utilize throughout the playoffs.

“We feel pretty good about the lines, the way they’ve been going,” Parise said. “The guys have been playing well together and feel comfortable playing with each other. I think that we’ve got guys that can score. I think our fourth line has been really good as of late. We’ve got a line capable of playing more of a defensive role. You need all those guys. Everyone’s got to do their part. When we do that, we’ll be right there. We’ll be a tough team to beat.”

And each line has done its part well this season.

The top two have produced consistently, with a 30 goal-scorer on the second in Pominville — the third Wild player to hit that mark in a single season. Parise fell just one goal short of the record with 29, but worked in tandem with Koivu, who led the Wild with 43 assists, for the bulk of the season.

The third line has consistently been looked upon to shut down other team’s top lines — something it’s done well recently, notably keeping Sidney Crosby off the score sheet and shot charts April 5. The line has had its moments of production this season, stepping up in times of need, but true to its role, they’ll be called upon to grind it out with Colorado’s top guns, to play hard and be just as physical, if not more, as they’ve been all season long.

“They’ve had strong games against Colorado, especially in their building,” Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said. “And we’re going to need that from them…Because of their identity, because of their role, it’s going to play an important part. Plus they have the ability to create and be strong in the offensive zone. They should be a tough line to play against.

While the third line will have a shutdown mentality, the fourth will be expected to bring consistent energy in its limited minutes.

“It’s about momentum,” Yeo said. “It’s about bringing momentum to your team. It’s about getting in on the forecheck, having big hits, making sure their defense know that we’re coming, and making sure that we’re having an effect on them physically. It’s also about playing a certain way to prevent them from getting to that part of their game.”

Overall each line has contributed to the Wild’s success to a greater degree than it’s seen in the past couple of seasons; including added scoring depth throughout the roster.

Rather than relying on just the top two lines for goals, the Wild has seen production up and down the lineup, which is a direct result of additions to the roster like Moulson, Matt Cooke and Nino Niederreiter.

“I think we have more proven scorers on the roster than we did last year,” Parise said. “When you have guys that have a track record of putting the puck in the net, that goes a long way. It’s a hard thing to do. In your first couple years in the league there’s a lot of pressure, playoffs is tighter, but I think we’ve got a good mix now.”

The added depth hasn’t solely translated to on-ice production; it’s also been a major factor in the locker room.

When both Parise and Koivu were out of the lineup, Pominville stepped in and took an even larger leadership role with the club, having already been a member of the leadership corps in his first full season with the Wild after serving as a team captain in Buffalo. Another name in that group is Cooke, who was signed in the offseason.

“That’s probably part of the reason they got me, those qualities,” Pominville said. “I was a leader on another team. You look at a guy like Cooke, same thing. I think they look at who they bring in and hand pick their guys. I think it’s benefitted our team because we’ve got a lot of different guys, different personalities that can step up at different times when needed. We have a really good mix of leadership.”

Those leadership qualities have seeped through the lineup. Even the Captain has noticed it and it can only spell good things in the near and distant future.

“The young guys, they’ve taken another step this year in the way that they’ve been playing and being leaders on their own, on this team,” Koivu said. “It’s great to see, but more than anything, it gives you confidence going forward.”

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