There has justifiably been a lot of attention paid to Josh Harding’s sensational start. The Wild goaltender has given up 17 goals in 15 games and leads the NHL with a 1.21 goals-against average and .947 save percentage.
Ryan Suter has also been the talk of the NHL in recent days. Last season’s Norris Trophy runner-up is making 30-plus minute games seem like nothing again thanks to a string of 35-plus minute nights.
And throughout the Wild’s 8-1-2 streak since Oct. 19, Zach Parise has scored clutch goals and Mikael Granlund-to-Jason Pominville has been a common occurrence.
All of the above has overshadowed another significant reason why the Wild keeps racking up points and hasn’t lost in regulation this month heading into Friday’s contest with the Florida Panthers.
The Wild has established a prototypical shutdown third line thanks to mainstays Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak. Cooke, who ranks second on the Wild with a plus-7 rating, and Brodziak, a plus-3, have been on the ice for only two even-strength goals against each in the past 12 games.
That’s remarkable when a checking line’s task every night is face the opposing team’s top scoring lines. Lately, Cooke and Brodziak have skated with rookie Justin Fontaine, third on the Wild with six goals and a plus-6 rating.
“At the end of the day, I judge our line by where we spend time and, if we’re spending time in the defensive zone, we’re doing something wrong,” said Cooke, in his 15th NHL year and first with the Wild. “A lot of times games are judged by stats. Unfortunately, when you’re playing on the third line, sometimes you can’t look at stats unless you’re looking at the stats of the line we’re up against.
“Stats have many tales, but to judge our success, if the line we’re playing against gets zeroes, then we’ve done our job.”
The Wild has given up the fewest 5-on-5 goals in the NHL this season (16). It is tied with Boston for fewest even-strength goals (5-on-5 and 4-on-4) allowed this season (19).
A big reason for that is the play of Minnesota’s third line. It has helped that Cooke and Brodziak have been a tandem since Day One of training camp. They complement each other well.
“As a line, our bare minimum should be not getting scored on, being responsible and being hard to play against,” Brodziak said.
The best way to do that is playing in the offensive zone, and that’s something Cooke, Brodziak and Fontaine have done a lot of lately. In Wednesday’s shootout win over Toronto, the line combined for 10 shots either registered or attempted on goal.
“Fonzie had four Grade A chances before the 10-minute mark of the second period totally off hard work and a forecheck,” Cooke said.
And even though the line didn’t score, it often forced Maple Leafs scorers such as Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk to defend. Brodziak says making opposing top lines work for everything must be his line’s identity.
Coach Mike Yeo credited the line with creating momentum again after the Wild failed to muster an attack on a five-minute power play in the third period when down by a goal.
Instead of it being a “letdown,” Yeo said, Cooke, Brodziak and Fontaine “got right back on the hunt again. They were pressuring, they were pursuing, they were aggressive and I think that carried over the next several shifts [until Parise tied the score] and, as far as I’m concerned, the rest of the game.”
Besides Cooke’s acquisition and Fontaine’s elevation from the minors, the line has been effective because of Brodziak’s improvement over last season. He tied for fifth worst in the NHL last season with a minus-18.
“We were all very confident that he’d respond and have a bounceback season,” Yeo said.
Brodziak, tied for 13th in the NHL with a .559 faceoff winning percentage on the league’s third-best faceoff team, isn’t getting ahead of himself.
“I feel there’s positives to my game that I can keep building off, and those were tough to find last year,” Brodziak said. “As the year progresses, I feel confident that I can keep getting better and better and peak at the right time. It’s a work in progress.”