Staal, Wild second line finds new life in Wild 10-game winning streak
ST. PAUL--During the Wild's stellar play this season, including their current 10-game winning streak, veteran center Eric Staal has received much praise. A player who many thought was on the back end of his career, Staal has found new life as the...
ST. PAUL-During the Wild's stellar play this season, including their current 10-game winning streak, veteran center Eric Staal has received much praise. A player who many thought was on the back end of his career, Staal has found new life as the center of the top line for the Wild, flanked by whichever set of wingers coach Bruce Boudreau chooses.
Staal, along with Devan Dubnyk developing into perhaps the best goaltender in the NHL, has become a major storyline for the Wild. Throw in Boudreau, the 61-year-old who has found a way to energize a roster that hasn't changed much the past few years, and there lies the holy trinity of the Wild.
That, however, doesn't tell the whole story. In fact, it overlooks a very important part.
During the Wild's franchise-record winning streak, the second line of Mikko Koivu centering Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund has flown under the radar.
Boudreau put that line together midway through the Nov. 23 game against the Winnipeg Jets and doubled down by starting that line together two days later against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Since then, the Wild have points in 14 of 15 games.
Zucker and Granlund have 15 points and Koivu has 14 during that span. That is a combined 44 points for one of the most productive lines in the NHL over the past month.
"Zucks has come in and fit in like a glove there," Boudreau said. "He gives us that element ... where now he's scoring and he's skating and he's defending. ... When he moves his legs, he's a very good player."
Boudreau credited Granlund with being "very smart" in both ends and Koivu with being a shutdown defender for "the last 10 years" of his long-standing career with the Wild.
"I've always played that role," Koivu said. "I believe we have to play good defense in order to be a successful team. I'm trying to do my part with that."
It appears Zucker and Granlund are following Koivu's lead, using their speed to be more active in both ends of late.
"It starts with how we defend," Granlund said. "That is the No. 1 priority for us."
It is no coincidence that Boudreau usually plays the Zucker-Koivu-Granlund line against the other team's top line. He has gushed this season about the luxury of having a shutdown line.
"I think every team that's good has that thing going for them," Boudreau said. "We are no different. ... They take it as a challenge. They have exceeded my expectations with it."
Zucker is a plus-22 for the season, while Koivu and Granlund are both at plus-16. That means the Wild are scoring at a much higher rate than they are getting scored on when those players are on the ice.
Koivu, who is regularly discussed as a top-tier defensive forward in the NHL, doesn't believe Zucker or Granlund get enough credit for defensive prowess.
"I know they are always there to back me up," he said. "As players, we recognize the matchups. We take pride in (going against the other team's top line)."
"We love it," Zucker added. "We're trying to thrive in that moment. We know we're going up against great players. We also know if we just play our game, then we can eliminate a lot of their chances."
That the line is also scoring is a bonus. It starts from doing the right thing on the other end.
"Well, the pucks are going in," Koivu said. "Some nights the puck finds its way. Other nights, it doesn't. ... We need to play good defense in order to win games. We can't start cheating (because we are scoring). We have to stay to our structure, and we've been doing that. As of late the pucks are going in. It's a great feeling."
And it doesn't sound as though the Zucker-Koivu-Granlund line is ready for that feeling to go away.
"I feel like as a line we're playing well and doing what we need to do right now," Zucker said. "I can also guarantee that we aren't satisfied. It's about building and getting better. That's what we're focused on."