One giant reason the Wild did such a great job Monday keeping Colorado’s top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Paul Stastny and Nathan MacKinnon off the scoresheet was because of the play of third-liners Matt Cooke, Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine.
But with Cooke suspended seven games for kneeing Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie, coach Mike Yeo had to assemble a new checking line for Thursday’s Game 4. Enter Nino Niederreiter, who will be slotted to the left of Haula and Fontaine.
“Adding a guy who can be strong on the puck, whose responsible defensively and can play a strong two-way game was important to us,” Yeo said. “Obviously, a good challenge for three young kids.”
Asked if that youth is a concern (Niederreiter is 21 and Haula and Fontaine are rookies), Yeo said, “We have confidence in those guys, so we’re not going to try to hide anybody out here.”
Fontaine said losing Cooke’s physical presence and defensive smarts is a big loss, “but we’re going to play the same way. We moved as a five-man unit every time we were out there. We were gapped up. That’s our main thing. We were on top of them. A lot of it was stick on puck and being in their face and keeping it in their end. That kind of frustrated them. We just have to bring the same mentality and work ethic.
“Nino’s a good, hard forechecker, first man in just like Cookie in terms of playing the body and getting in their face. Cookie’s a huge part of the team, but we’ll approach it the same way as last game.”
Niederreiter, who skated on the fourth line Monday, has played on the third line a lot the past few months with Cooke and Kyle Brodziak. So he’s used to the role and is excited to move to his natural left wing from the right side.
“We know how good their [first] line is,” Niederreiter said. “We have to make sure we play physical, be hard on them and make sure we control the gray areas.”
Added Haula, “Cookie did a good job last game playing the body and protecting the puck and running the clock off — so to speak — in their zone and wearing their D down. Nino does a good job of that, too. It’s tough [for Colorado’s top line] to play offense when you don’t have the puck. I take it as a huge challenge. I take a lot of pride in that if that responsibility is given to me.”
Brodziak back in lineup
After being scratched for the first time in his Wild career Monday, Brodziak will center Dany Heatley and Cody McCormick on the fourth line Thursday. Yeo needs to add Brodziak on the penalty kill with Cooke suspended.
“You’ve got to use it productively,” Brodziak said. “You’re up there watching. You can feel the emotional changes during the game. Sometimes on the bench it’s a little harder to feel that. You’re more engaged in the game. When you’re up top, you see how the game progresses a little bit more, which plays are more important than others.”
Yeo was happy with Heatley’s game Monday. The veteran, scratched seven times down the stretch and the first two games of the playoffs, had two shots and was strong on the puck all game.
“I give real credit to him the way that he’s handled himself since being out,” Yeo said. “For a veteran guy like that and the success that he’s had, to not start in our lineup, he handled it with a great deal of professionalism. But more importantly he made sure that he was ready.”
• Left winger Mike Rupp’s four-game suspension for his headshot on St. Louis’ T.J. Oshie has ended.
• Game 5 Saturday in Denver has been scheduled for 8:30 p.m. and will be televised locally on Fox Sports North.
• The Wild extended its radio contract with Clear Channel to broadcast games on KFAN (100.3-FM) for three more years. The radio team of Bob Kurtz and Tom Reid will remain the same.