ST. PAUL, Minn. — Returning home and getting the benefit of the final change, the Minnesota Wild gave the third line of Matt Cooke, Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine the task of shutting down the Colorado Avalanche’s top line, which had dominated the opening two games of the series.
Gabriel Landeskog, Paul Stastny and Nathan MacKinnon combined for seven goals and 17 points as Colorado won the first two games on its home ice. With Minnesota head coach Mike Yeo matching his third line against the Avalanche’s first line, Landeskog, Stastny and MacKinnon went scoreless in Game 3 and combined for seven shots in the Wild’s 1-0 overtime win.
While Yeo waited to hear the status of forward Matt Cooke’s disciplinary hearing with the NHL, he had to figure out how his team would fill Cooke’s role in defending the Colorado’s high-scoring trio.
Enter Nino Niederreiter to the left wing with Haula and Fontaine.
"There’s some things we discussed, different scenarios we could have tried," Yeo said. "Probably looking at the way Haulsie and Fonzie played, trying to keep that intact. Adding a guy who can be strong on the puck, who’s responsible defensively and can play a strong two-way game and that was important to us. Obviously a good challenge for three young kids."
Entering another pivotal home game, Yeo has entrusted the responsibility of being a shutdown line to three young players. Niederreiter is the NHL veteran of the group, if you can call a 21-year-old with 145 career NHL games a veteran. Fontaine is a 26-year-old rookie. Haula, 23, is in his first pro season.
Together, they draw the most difficult defensive assignment in Thursday’s Game 4.
"Last game it was definitely a challenge," Fontaine said. "We’ve got to be on top of our game, we got to know what we’re doing with the puck and we’ve got to be on top of them. We can’t let them get up to full speed, get their first three strides and moving the puck. That’s when we’re successful and that’s what we did last game. So we got to carry that over."
But Yeo is confident in Niederreiter, Haula and Fontaine to get the job done.
"Listen, they’re a big part of our team," Yeo said. "We have confidence in those guys, so we’re not going to try to hide anybody out here. Obviously if we feel it’s not working, I’m comfortable with any line. I’m comfortable with any of our centermen. If that’s their assignment they’ll take care of it and if we put somebody else on the task they’ll have to take care of it too."
Niederreiter brings the physical edge Cooke did to the line. Niederreiter is also a strong skater for being 6-foot-2, 209 pounds.
"They’re both fast guys and I feel like I can bring the physical play to that line," Niederreiter said. "We have to make sure we play smart out there, make sure we control the gray areas."
Haula had stepped forward as a defensive forward from his first game this season, even taking key shifts late in games and playing on the team’s penalty-kill during the regular season. His speed was vital against Colorado’s top line, which scored in transition three times in Game 2.
Haula had the reputation as a scorer and offensive playmaker while with the University of Minnesota the past three seasons, but he’s adapted his game to the responsibilities he’s been given with the Wild. Back at home and being promoted to Cooke’s line for Game 3 was another step for Haula.
"I take it as a huge challenge," Haula said. "I take a lot of pride in that. If that responsibility is given to me, I do take a lot of pride in that and try to do the best job that I can out there."
Niederreiter has seemingly done it all in his first season in Minnesota. Acquired from the New York Islanders, Niederreiter was given another chance to flourish in the NHL this season. A former No. 5 overall pick by New York, Niederreiter played 81 games during the regular season and had 14 goals and 22 assists to go with a plus-12 rating.
"What I really appreciate about him is we’ve been able to insert him into different roles," Yeo said. "We’ve put him in a scoring role, we’ve put him in a checking role and he’s always sort of adapted. To me, that’s the sign of a good player. That’s the sign of a guy who’s going to have a good career. He’s not pigeon-holed. For a player like that, big strong, physical guy he has skill. I feel really good about how he’s developed and I think it’s been a good first year for him here."