ST. PAUL, Minn. — Charlie Coyle learned quickly to keep his stick on the ice when playing with Thomas Vanek.
Centering a line with Vanek, Coyle dropped a pass to the left wing as the Minnesota Wild linemates broke into the Edmonton zone on a 3-on-2 break. Coyle drove to the net as soon as he let the puck go to try and occupy a defenseman and create space for Vanek, Minnesota’s big free-agent signing last summer who is known for being an explosive goal scorer.
"I was just busting my butt to get to the net and as soon as I looked at him, the puck was already coming to me through that guy’s legs," Coyle recalled Thursday. "I was just getting to the net, so I didn’t have my stick on the ice and I should have. It went right past and I could have a little breakaway in tight. I was like, ‘Geez, I got to be ready.’"
Coyle learned and has combined with Vanek to provide another potent line for the Wild during their post All-Star break run in which they lead the NHL with a 22-5-1 record heading into Friday night at home against the Calgary Flames.
With Coyle and Justin Fontaine, Vanek found a place back at left wing and consistency in his linemates.
"That’s the hardest part joining a new team," Vanek said of finding chemistry with a line.
Vanek has scored 296 career goals with at least 20 goals in every previous season of his 10-year NHL career. Traded midseason last year to the New York Islanders, Vanek found immediate success with John Tavares at center.
The transition in Minnesota, at least on the ice, didn’t take as quickly. Vanek had one goal through his first 21 games. With Minnesota floundering as a team in December and Vanek not living up to his standards, the former University of Minnesota star put pressure on himself.
"The struggle on the ice is finding the right teammates, the right fits," Vanek said. "That was, I think, the biggest struggle, at least the first half. I think at times, especially players like myself, I know I got to produce. When you don’t, you start overthinking the game and it gets to your head a little bit."
Vanek was moved from left to right wing, from line to line and couldn’t find the right combination. Slowly, he started feeling better about his game. Then he was paired with Coyle and Fontaine and the trio helped each other find their games along the way.
An eight-game point streak — the longest by a Minnesota player this season — was snapped Tuesday in New York, but Vanek has six goals and four assists in the past nine games. Coyle has three goals and three assists in the past six games. Fontaine has chipped in five goals, eight assists and is a plus-12 in the last 18 games.
Being back on the left wing also helped Vanek’s confidence.
"The biggest thing with Thomas that I’ve seen, I think he’s trusting his linemates more," Yeo said. "And because of that, he’s using them more. He’s shooting pucks more, but he’s also going to the net more, which is an area he’s obviously very dangerous."
Suddenly, Vanek is just one goal of reaching the 20-goal mark again. He has nine goals and eight assists in the past 20 games. He’s third on the team in goals and is tied for second with 49 points. Yeo had Vanek back with the first power-play unit during Thursday’s practice, too.
"Extremely pleased with his attitude in terms of how he handles feedback and how he tries to apply the things that you’re talking about," Yeo said. "I said at the start of the year, it’s going to take time. It’s got to become habit, and I’m certainly not going to say that we’re where we need to be yet. I’ve certainly seen some progress. I think with that progress, I think we’ve seen his game on the other side of the coin as far as his offensive output. The two are always connected to me. We’ve seen the production there because of that."
The playmaking — which Yeo said is underrated when it comes to Vanek — has come through. Coyle said he knew of Vanek as a goal scorer. The passing ability surprised Coyle, at least at first.
"He almost thinks on a different level than other guys, just the little plays that other guys wouldn’t think of," Coyle said. "Shoot one off the board to himself or finding that guy and just flipping one up past a guy to you. Almost like a quarterback throwing a football or something, just little things like that that he thinks of and talks to us about. I never thought of it like that. I like that. He talks to us a lot and I think that helps us too."
And know Coyle knows to have his stick on the ice, at the ready.