On Saturday night, the Minnesota Wild faced off against the Los Angeles Kings and the game was broken into two parts. In the first part, the Wild dominated the opening period and was up 2-0 thanks to a slippery backhander from Nino Niederreiter
and another backhander from Mikko Koivu
that went thin mints (top shelf where momma keeps the cookies) over Kings goalie Jonathan Quick.
In the second part, Quick was pulled after the first period, and the defending Stanley Cup Champions rallied in the second. The Kings significantly outshot the Wild throughout the middle stanza, turning up the heat with long shifts of offensive control. Its mojo went from a simmer into a rolling boil and resulted in an early second period goal.
Late in the second period these two moments — the Wild’s first period brilliance and the Kings resurgence in the second period — came together like the joints on a hinge. The momentum of the entire game, and likely the outcome on the final score sheet, pivoted on the intersection of the two moments during a critical penalty kill.
At the end of the second period, Erik Haula was called for hooking. On the subsequent penalty kill Ryan Suter was nabbed for slashing. Now, the Kings were surging and unleashed a turkey shoot of snipers featuring Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams and Drew Doughty in an effort to tie the game.
If the Kings scored, its momentum would carry full-steam through the end of the period and into the third. If the Wild killed off the lethal Kings power play, though, the club could simply recoup for the third period.
With the score 2-1, Minnesota Head Coach Mike Yeo looked down at his bench and dug into his tool box. He needed the right tools, the right players, to fix the hinge and keep the game from swinging wide open towards the Kings. During the ensuing four-minute penalty kill, Yeo sent Justin Fontaine and Ryan Carter out a total of six times (three shifts each). Charlie Coyle came on to the penalty kill late, too, when Haula was released from the sin bin and the pair fought off the dying minutes of the Kings power play.
After killing off the daunting power play, which included 20 intense seconds of 5-on-3, the second period ended and the cheers from the Wild fans pulsed in waves, building every second as the clocked ticked down. The ovation carried Minnesota off the ice and straight into the third period, where it used the momentous tide and popped in two more goals for a 4-1 win.
It was a Wild win built on many things: stout goaltending and scoring from the top lines. But take a closer look at the victory and one will see contributing to the win was the depth of its toolbox, particularly the strength on the bottom of the roster.
When a coach looks down at his bench, he sees either a tool box filled with a deep well, one chalk full of four lines and three sets of defensemen, a combination of skill or swagger, grit and scoring, or he sees a shallow box with a few shiny pieces and some spare parts. It is in the depth of the tool box that helps teams win games, and ultimately, make a run in the playoffs.
Depth is defined as the distance from the top of a surface of something to its bottom. In the hockey world, an NHL team’s depth is measured from the top (of the roster) to the bottom as well. It does not simply measure the weight of the star players at the top but rather it takes the sum total of all four of the forward lines and all six defensive pairings.
Ryan Carter is the sandpaper in the Wild’s toolbox. His role on the team is to wreck things with blunt force and energy, to scratch and scrape the puck away on the fore check with aggression. Carter was added to the roster to provide the team with grit and abrasive hockey on the third and fourth line. More importantly, though, his quality play on a regular line and on the penalty kill — as seen against the Kings — has given the team more depth.
Carter, a veteran of more than 400 NHL games, knows firsthand what it takes for a team to be successful in the regular season, and more importantly, in the playoffs.
“Depth is huge,” said Carter, dripping sweat after a recent practice and his nose nicked and cut from a fresh round of scrapes in the corners. “The season is long and it’s a grind. The playoffs are even more intense and more of a grind. The key is depth. The teams that have good third and fourth lines that are going are the teams that win their series.”
Yeo regularly deployed the fourth line against all of the Kings top lines and not just against its fourth line, which is standard protocol. The speed of the Wild’s fourth line and the skill of their third line (Fontaine-Coyle-Thomas Vanek) caused headaches all game. And this was by design.
Team depth is one of the most critical components of playoff success because the games turn into a chess game of matchups. The more tools available to wield, the more versatile a team becomes.
“It’s especially important this time of year,” Yeo said. “The matchups get pretty tough for the top two groups. You need your big guys to come through and we’ve certainly seen our guys do that. But quite often they’re cancelling each other out with the other team’s top players.”
With the top lines and top defenseman constantly neutralizing each other a team needs to get contributions from other sources. A quality third and fourth line can easily provide the difference.
“Matchups are important,” said Carter. “Much more important in a seven game series. It’s a little more of a chess match. So, when you can win those chess matches with your third and fourth lines I think that goes a long way in a series.”
Since the All-Star Break, the Wild has been on quite an amazing run. Along with the obvious factor of goalie Devan Dubnyk’s unbelievable play and the Wild’s veteran leadership, one of the main reasons the team is rolling is because its third and fourth lines have often outplayed its opponent’s third and fourth lines.
Yeo has reached into his toolbox and has gotten outstanding contributions from the third line of Coyle (a steady DeWalt drill), Fontaine (spackling mud fitting in anywhere) and Vanek (versatile Swiss Army knife with a sharp blade). The fourth line combo of Haula (a two-legged buzz saw) and Kyle Brodziak (reliable Phillips Head screw driver) has also chipped in goals and stout defense.
“You need to get contributions from somewhere else,” said Yeo. “Without a doubt, that’s been a factor in the run we’ve been on. And it’s not just them. It’s been the defense. Getting some offense from the back end.”
The contribution from the bottom lines and bottom defense pair was seen recently when the was on the road against the Nashville Predators on March 17.
In a heated game versus a divisional rival in a testy and raucous arena, the Wild’s top two lines were neutralized. So, the club’s third line and third set of defensemen went to work. Coyle scored both goals in regulation and then Matt Dumba, the emerging young defenseman on the third pair, scored the OT winner on a thunderclap slap shot that hit the back of the net like a sledge hammer.
Getting points and contributions from the deep end of toolbox is crucial for long-term success.
“When you talk about the playoffs, you talk about depth,” Wild defenseman Jordan Leopold said.
Because of the majority of overtime games, lack of television timeouts and battles every other night, teams can’t get away with relying on two lines and two pairs of defenseman. The third and fourth lines often times have fresher legs and can provide a spark of energy.
More importantly, the third line and fourth line players can provide momentum swings just like the one seen in the game versus the Kings, even if it’s not on the scoreboard.
“You get a couple of grinding shifts. We’ve had those here and it can change momentum,” said Leopold. “Momentum swings come in many different ways. But it all starts with the guys that do the grinding and hard work.”
For an NHL team to have success it can’t simply rely on a couple of shiny pieces and a few spare parts. It needs a fully stocked toolbox to complete the job and the only way it will achieve this is by having a deep bench.
“You need the third and fourth lines and six defenseman,” said Leopold. “That’s where you end up winning hockey games.”