ST. PAUL — Wild center Mikko Koivu appears to be close to returning from the knee injury he suffered last week against Calgary. But where will the Minnesota captain play when he gets back on the ice? That’s a good question and on Thursday night no one had an answer.
That’s because after losing in Calgary and Edmonton to end their most recent road trip — those defeats dropped the Wild to 3-7 in their past 10 games — the Wild rebounded with impressive back-to-back victories over Montreal and Florida at Xcel Energy Center. The Wild cruised to a 5-1 win over the Panthers on Thursday evening after beating Montreal 7-1 two days earlier.
Koivu had been centering a line with Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle on his wings before his injury, but his absence caused coach Bruce Boudreau to move Coyle to center with Parise and Nino Niederreiter on the wings.
To say that trio has caught fire would be an understatement.
Niederreiter scored a goal that was assisted by Coyle and Parise when they were paired in the third period of last Friday’s 7-2 loss in Edmonton. On Tuesday, Parise had a power-play goal and two assists, Coyle had a shorthanded goal and an assist and Niederreiter had a goal. On Thursday, Niederreiter had two goals and an assist and Parise had a goal and an assist. Coyle didn’t have a point but he was a plus-3. Overall the line was a plus-11 as they were on the ice for four of Minnesota’s five goals.
That means the trio has accounted for seven goals and seven assists in two-plus games since being put together. So can Boudreau bring himself to break up the line when Koivu returns?
“I can,” he said. “Do I want to? Well, we’ll see. … We’ll talk about it. I don’t know if and when Mikko can play next. It’s not a slam dunk that he’s playing Saturday, so I don’t really have to worry about it until (Friday) at practice.”
That’s when Boudreau should have more clarity about Koivu’s status for the Wild’s game against Calgary on Saturday afternoon at the X.
“It’s a good problem to have those guys playing well,” Boudreau said. “They are such a big part of our team and have been for the last five years. When you take two 20-plus potential goal scorers out of our lineup, or they’re not producing, it’s a big hole. Really happy to see they’ve both started to skate and play a lot better.”
As difficult as it might be, the reality is that Koivu might need to return as the Wild’s third-line center. The Wild’s top line of Eric Staal between Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund continues to play well, and Boudreau likely isn’t going to want to mess with a line that seems to have breathed life into both Coyle and Niederreiter, who until recently were having less-than-stellar seasons.
Parise, meanwhile, has been fantastic for much of the season and leads the Wild with 15 goals. He is second on the team with 29 points.
If Koivu does center the third line it likely would be with Jordan Greenway and Joel Eriksson Ek on his wings. The assumption would be that Luke Kunin, who has been playing right wing on the third line, would be returned to Iowa of the AHL.
Coyle, Parise and Niederreiter weren’t going near the subject of what they would do about Koivu — “Whatever happens, happens,” Coyle said. “Mikko is such a big part of our team. Obviously, we need him going.” — but it’s clear they are enjoying the chemistry they have found in such a short time together.
“That’s a good question,” Parise said when asked about how a line can click so well after never playing together before. “I’ve always been a believer in playing with the same guys and learning from each other. You know where they put the puck, you know certain things about their game, where they like to go. Then sometimes, the odd time, you throw something against the wall and it just works. Fortunately for us, it’s been like that. I don’t know if there’s any rhyme-or-reason to it but right now it’s working.”
Said Coyle: “There’s a lot that goes into it. I’ve played with both those guys, not really together, but separate, so you kind of know where to play, you kind of know their tendencies, where they are going to go with it and we do a lot of talking on the bench, too. I think we stay positive with that talk and it helps. I play my line, Nino plays his role, Zach plays his role and I think we feed off each other doing that.”
What’s so interesting is that this is happening with Coyle at center. He has bounced between center and wing during his time with the Wild and has often frustrated Boudreau with his inconsistency. He had a 10-game streak without a goal earlier this season. Niederreiter, meanwhile, seemed to lose all confidence earlier this season and did not score in the first 14 games. He was demoted to the fourth line at one point.
Coyle is now making plays, including a beautiful shorthanded goal on the backhand on Tuesday. Niederreiter appears to have adjusted to playing on the right wing and his confidence has returned.
“I think we’re just doing the little things,” said Coyle, whose name has come up in trade rumors in recent weeks. “Nino is great on the wall and that’s been our transition and breakout and get to their end a little quicker. I think that’s huge. Good (defense) first and then we just talk to each other on the bench, on the ice, we know where each other are. It’s paying off for us.”
And it’s about to make Boudreau have to make a very interesting decision about where his captain lands when he’s ready to come back.
“You’ve got to ask him that one,” Parise said. “We all know how good of a player Mikko is and we’re going to welcome him back in the lineup. We’ll see where everything falls. But, as of today, our line has been playing really well and we’ll see where it goes. We’re playing really well with Mikko in the middle, too … so I don’t have to make that decision.”