ST. PAUL, Minn. — Think of the Minnesota Wild, and thoughts will typically go to names like Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter and Niklas Backstrom. Minnesota’s veteran players and leaders — Koivu wears the “C” as captain and Parise and Suter are assistant captains in their first season with the Wild — inevitably draw well-deserved attention. The second line of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi has given opponents something to think about, too.
Mike Rupp, Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell likely go unnoticed, flying under the radar on Minnesota’s fourth line. But in this condensed season where the Wild will play 48 games in 99 days, coach Mike Yeo knows the importance of being able to rely on Rupp, Konopka and Mitchell taking regular shifts.
“Obviously when Mikko and Zach go on the ice, and deservedly so, they get a lot of attention and they get a lot of results,” Yeo said. “Having said that, it’s a 60-minute hockey game and everybody needs to go out and everybody needs to contribute and everybody needs to play their role.”
They’ve done more than just play their role. Yeo trusts his trio on the fourth line and they’ve allowed the second-year coach to roll all four lines. Being able to give regular shifts to the fourth line over an 82- game season is important. It might even be more crucial this season, such as last week when Minnesota played five games in eight days.
“It’s imperative that you can play all your players in the lineup with a condensed schedule like this,” said Konopka, who was signed three days before Parise and Suter agreed to their landmark deals last summer. “Even when it’s not condensed, I think it’s important for the overall big picture of things. Sometimes it’s extremely hard to keep that in focus, the big picture that players need rest. And as much as we’d like to play Zach, Mikko and Heater 30 minutes a night, that’s not in our best interest long-term. So, it’s like depth through your lineup, your third line, your fourth line, fifth and sixth ‘D’ all those are key components.”
Konopka and Mitchell were both signed on July 1 last summer. Konopka was added for his physical play and his knack for winning important faceoffs. Mitchell was added as a third or fourth line member, with speed and the ability to play winger or center. Rupp was acquired early in the season from the New York Rangers in exchange for center Darroll Powe and Nick Palmeiri. Rupp is another strong veteran, with size and physicality and playoff experience, having won the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2003.
It didn’t take long for the three to mesh.
“I think we’ve been part of the success here,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got to try and create momentum every time we go on the ice, whether it’s drawing a penalty or even scoring a big goal. Shifts after goals, try to calm things down; or shifts after power plays, try to keep the momentum going. Sometimes after an unsuccessful power play, those shifts are important when momentum can switch the other way. So, I think we’ve done a pretty good job and those are the key things that we have to focus on during games.”
The fourth line has been a momentum-generator for the other lines. Instead of spending their shifts in the defensive zone backchecking, Konopka, Rupp and Mitchell have added a spark offensively and routinely control play in the offensive zone with a relentless forecheck.
Mitchell, who had nine goals each of the past two seasons with San Jose, has four goals and three assists. He has three goals and an assist in his past nine games. Rupp has a goal and three assists along with 65 penalty minutes. Konopka, who found himself a healthy scratch in six of eight games earlier this year, has played the last 13 games. He has a team-high 96 penalty minutes as the team’s main guardian and has won 60.5 percent of his faceoffs, which leads the Wild.
“Those guys are playing important minutes for us, but they’re playing quality minutes,” Yeo said. “They’re doing a great job of drawing momentum or bringing momentum to our group. With that, they’ve been able to create some offense. They’ve been able to draw some penalties, they’ve been able to put the opposition in a place of discomfort, which is what we’re looking for from them.”
With energy and physical play, Rupp, Konopka and Mitchell are making opponents work harder and hopefully leaving less energy when Parise, Koivu and company hit the ice.
“What we try to do really is we try to switch the momentum of the game too, wear down the other team’s defense and stuff like that,” Konopka said.
Rupp, Konopka and Mitchell are content with their more well-known teammates drawing the attention. The fourth line just wants to keep doing its part and hopefully receive their attention when Minnesota is making a long playoff drive.
“There’s no secret, you need four lines if you’re going to go on a deep playoff run and the more games you play, the more you’re going to rely on four lines,” Mitchell said. “It’s important. It’s good we have that here.”