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Wild's Forward Depth a Potential Game-Changer

Minnesota hoping its strength in numbers up front can be the catalyst for deep postseason run

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

ST. PAUL -- The overall forward depth has been a talking point inside the dressing room of the Minnesota Wild virtually all season.

But with the Stanley Cup Playoffs set to get underway, that depth is about to undergo its most stringent test to date.

While it's easier to roll four lines during the regular season, it becomes more risky in the playoffs, when the smallest of mistakes can result in a damaging goal against.

But there has been a method to Wild coach Bruce Boudreau's reasoning for continuing to play four lines, even late into games where many teams might shrink the bench.

"The reason we did it all year is so we can do it in the playoffs," Boudreau said. "I have a lot of confidence in a lot of the players that play."

That depth will be on display in Game 1 Wednesday against the St. Louis Blues, another team unafraid to roll four lines. While the Wild will lean on the line of Nino Niederreiter, Eric Staal and Zach Parise to provide it with offense, it will likely be the job of Mikko Koivu's line and Martin Hanzal's group to help slow down St. Louis' top groups.

It's a benefit the Wild didn't have in 2013, when it first began its run of five straight trips to the playoffs. Back then, it relied on Koivu's line to be a two-way force against the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that rolled two powerful scoring lines.

Without the guns to match up, the Blackhawks made quick work of the Wild.

Now, it's Minnesota possessing match-up advantages. Boudreau is confident in Koivu's, Hanzal's or even Staal's line to neutralize an opponent. Each is also capable of contributing in the offensive end.

"To be successful, you've gotta have four lines going," Niederreiter said. "To go far [in the playoffs], you can't win with three lines, you can't win with two lines. You have to all four lines going and I think that's something that we have with our team this year."

But Minnesota also has the firepower now to take advantage when a team's bottom-six forward group is on the ice, creating mismatches with the Staal line or even its fourth line, which boasts plenty of offensive pedigree in its own right.

"It's nice to have that depth," said Wild forward Charlie Coyle. "There's going to be guys sitting out of the lineup who are very capable of making a huge impact. I think it's going to make guys who are playing and in the lineup play better knowing that we have other guys who are itching to get in there and take your spot."

While Staal's line has been a staple for the past couple of weeks, building impressive chemistry together during that time, Erik Haula skated next to Koivu and Mikael Granlund on the second line. 

Haula's speed could be beneficial defending Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis' most explosive offensive player.

"He's a straight-line skater, his whole role has always been third-line checker," Boudreau said. "So he should be able to know that, and he's a great skater, so all those things should add up pretty good."

The addition of Hanzal at the end of February has really given Boudreau options, as was the goal of the trade when it was made. It helps that Hanzal has maintained a 50-point pace in 18 games since the trade was made.

Jason Zucker, who scored a career-high 22 goals during the regular season, will flank Hanzal and Coyle, who had a career-high 56-point regular season, on the Wild's third line.

Rookie Joel Eriksson Ek looks to center the fourth line with Jason Pominville on his wing and any number of other players competing for time at the other wing. Among them: Chris Stewart (34 career postseason games), Ryan White (16 career playoff games) and Jordan Schroeder (career highs in all offensive categories during the regular season). 

"I've been there before, where you've been the guy out of the lineup during the playoffs," White said. "You just gotta come to work every day, ready to go, and try to keep your head right. When you get that opportunity, you've got to try and take advantage of it.

"For the guys that aren't playing, [you've gotta] make sure you're working hard and keep your mind in it because there's going to be time when we're going to need them."

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