Coming off a thrilling 1-0 overtime victory in Game 3 on Monday, the Minnesota Wild gets a chance to even the best-of-seven series against the Colorado Avalanche at Xcel Energy Center tomorrow night.
However, the Wild will have to try and even the series without forward Matt Cooke. The 35-year-old is facing suspension and is in New York today for an in-person hearing for his hit on Avs defenseman Tyson Barrie on Monday.
With Cooke out of the lineup, Nino Niederreiter will move to the wing with Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine. The line was tasked with slowing down the Avalanche’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Paul Stastny in Game 3. After totaling 17 points in the first two games in Colorado, the line totaled only seven shots on Monday.
Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo liked the way that Haula and Fontaine played together and didn’t want to break them up. Throwing Niederreiter into the mix seems like a natural fit.
“Looking at the way that Haulsy and Fonzy both played, trying to keep that intact,” Yeo said. “Adding a guy who can be strong on the puck, responsible defensively and can play a strong two-way game, that was important to us.”
It’s going to be a big challenge for the line if they’re asked to shut the Avs top line down again. Cooke added a veteran presence and playoff experience, but Yeo thinks the youngsters are up to it. If not, he can always make an adjustment in matchups with the Wild having home ice and the last change.
“Obviously, a good challenge for three young kids,” Yeo said. “They’re a big part of our team and we have confidence in those guys. We’re not going to try to hide anybody out here. If we feel that it’s not working, I’m comfortable with any line.”
Niederreiter has moved throughout the lineup all season with the Wild, so he’s comfortable joining Fontaine and Haula. The big wing has been reliable wherever he’s been asked to play. He doesn’t think moving lines will change his approach.
“Playing physical, be sharp on both blue lines and grey areas and get pucks on net when we get the chance to,” Niederreiter said. “We have to play the same way [as Game 3].”
Fontaine appeared in his first Stanley Cup Playoff game on Monday. The rookie thought his line controlled the gap in the neutral zone and was able to apply pressure on the Avs on the forecheck, two reasons they found success in keeping Colorado off the board.
“We were able to get up the ice, so when they were trying to turn pucks up the ice we were right on top of their guys,” Fontaine said. “We weren’t letting them have two-three strides to get up to full speed.
“We need to continue to do that.”
With Niederreiter moving up, Kyle Brodziak is expected to center the fourth line. Brodziak was a healthy scratch in Game 3. The Wild bench boss wants him to play a steady defensive game. He’ll also be asked to kill penalties with Cooke unavailable.
“It’s not a big change for him,” Yeo said. “I’m confident he’ll come in and play the game well.”
Moving to the fourth-line wing will be Cody McCormick, who played center in Game 3. Moving to wing, McCormick knows how important wall play has been in the series, as Colorado’s defensemen have been active along the boards.
“We know they’re coming and it’s a matter of being ready for it,” McCormick said. “You’re going to be engaged in a battle there for sure. Throughout the game it’s one-on-one battles and you want to win every one.
“The board work is going to be huge.”
McCormick and Brodziak will be joined by Dany Healtey, who had a strong game after missing the first two games in Colorado as a healthy scratch. Yeo liked the way the veteran forward was able to step in after missing time.
“For a veteran guy like that and the success he’s had, to not start in our lineup, he handled it with a great deal of professionalism, but more importantly he made sure he was ready,” Yeo said.
In Game 3, the Wild came out with a sense of urgency and controlled desperation throughout its lineup. Yeo was asked if he thinks the team can match the level of urgency tomorrow.
“It better be. It’s not like we’re ahead in the series,” Yeo said.
Game 4 is the definition of a swing game. If the Wild wins, the series shifts to Colorado even, with pressure shifting back on the Avs. Earlier today, the League announced Game 5 will start at 8:30 p.m. State of Hockey time on Saturday. Obviously, if the Avalanche wins, it has a chance to close out the series on home ice.
“We recognize they’re going to come in with a real strong effort next game,” Yeo said. “They recognize the importance of next game.
“We understand the result that we want to have, but there’s a way we have to do it and play the game.”
The Wild controlled just about every facet of Game 3. The Avs didn’t like the way it played in the contest and will look to come back with a better effort. The best way to set the tone on both sides? Physical play.
It’s been an emotional and physical series, and will continue for the remainder of Round 1. The difficulty for both teams will be to retain that high level of emotion and physicality without letting it consume them. The team that controls its emotions best might have the biggest advantage.
“As the series goes on, probably what you’ll see is both teams learning how to play hard, learning how play physical, but at the same time not going over the line,” Yeo said. “It’s probably how close you can get to the line that’s really important. Because you don’t want to be hurting your team by trying to do too much out there or overextending yourself.”
For the Wild, it will have to move forward without one of its key veterans, Cooke, who provides physical play and a veteran locker room presence. However, the team has never relied on a single player and will continue to push forward like it has all season.
“Typically we’re not a team that looks to a guy and see how he’s playing then we react to it.” Yeo said. “We have an attitude as a group, we all play the sort of same way—how we play without the puck, how we play with the puck, whether that’s finishing a check or how you play in your own zone or execute with the puck—we are all trying to be on the same page.”