From the standpoint of familiarity, Jason Zucker acknowledged it’s been a bit of a challenge. The line that includes the Wild winger and center Mikko Koivu has been without its usual third cog, Mikael Granlund, for the past five games — and no one is certain when he will be back.
That has forced Zucker and Koivu, two-thirds of the Wild’s most dynamic and well-rounded trio last season, to adapt to a few new partners.
But the harmony between the pair has continued to grow, keeping the two of them productive no matter who is filling out the line. Last week, it was Chris Stewart, who has cultivated some magic of his own with a team-high six goals.
The original group could be reunited as soon as Tuesday’s game vs. Vancouver at Xcel Energy Center. Granlund skated with Zucker and Koivu at Monday’s practice, and he is hopeful doctors will clear him to play in the first of six consecutive home games. The return of another injured forward, Zach Parise, might take much longer; multiple reports Monday said Parise is having surgery for a back issue that has kept him out all season.
Whether it’s Granlund or someone else alongside them, Zucker and Koivu intend to keep giving the Wild the energy, playmaking ability and solid two-way game that has become the line’s hallmark.
“The good thing for us is that every guy that’s come onto our line has been a great player,” Zucker said. “Is it a challenge? Yes, as far as chemistry goes, because we haven’t played with these other guys as often. But at some point, you just go out and play hockey.
“We had some success last year, and Mikko and I are just gaining more and more chemistry. The more we keep playing together, the better we’ll be.”
The Wild’s multitude of injuries has caused lots of line-shuffling through the first six games. After Granlund was hurt in the season opener at Detroit, coach Bruce Boudreau briefly placed Zucker and Koivu on different lines before reuniting them.
The two had a short-lived partnership with Nino Niederreiter before he sprained his ankle in a victory at Chicago. Boudreau also has filled out the line with Tyler Ennis and Stewart, who was on the wing in last week’s loss at Winnipeg and victory at Calgary.
Zucker has two goals and four assists, tying him with Ryan Suter as the Wild’s second-leading scorer behind Stewart. Koivu has three goals, two assists and a five-game point streak. When the Wild needs a lift, Zucker and Koivu often have provided it with their speed, vision and all-out effort.
Stewart has been a fine complement. Though he has long been known for his bruising play, he said “this is the player I was drafted to be’’ and that no one should be surprised to see the scoring ability he’s always had.
“With the depletion of our lineup, they’ve been leaning on me to contribute offensively,’’ said Stewart, who has at least one point in every game this season. “I’ve been an offensive guy in this league, and I know how to score goals. Things are just coming easy when you’re feeling it, keeping it simple, not passing up any shots, going hard to the net and getting some bounces.’’
Count Boudreau among those who didn’t see that coming. The coach, who joked Saturday that he didn’t want to say too much about Stewart for fear of jinxing him, said the winger is more highly motivated this season.
“You knew that he had a really good offensive brain, especially below the circles,’’ Boudreau said. “To have the success he’s had, I wouldn’t have thought that.
“I wouldn’t say he’s doing anything different. He’s playing with confidence. He’s making plays.”
Granlund, who said he feels good, was hard-pressed to remain patient.
“Obviously, you’ve got to be smart,’’ he said. “But I don’t want to lie. You want to be out there.”
Zucker and Koivu want the same thing, but they’re prepared to keep making the best of whatever circumstances they face.
“We want to make sure we make a statement any time we can,” Zucker said. “If we can turn the momentum for even a couple shifts with some speed or playmaking or good defensive play, we want to do that. Hopefully we get a goal out of that, for another line or our line.”