While Wild players rested up away from the rink for the second half of a back-to-back Tuesday, coach Bruce Boudreau brainstormed how he’d fill out the evening’s lineup — a decision that’s on his mind constantly.
“My wife gets so mad at me because I’m just lost,” Boudreau said. “She can’t talk to me half the time.”
The latest debate centered on where to slot wingers Nino Niederreiter and J.T. Brown.
Boudreau figured center Eric Staal, who had zero goals in the previous nine games, needed a righthanded linemate to feed him the puck, and Brown — a mainstay on the fourth line to that point — was a fit. He also wanted to shift Niederreiter to his natural left side. The fourth unit made sense since Niederreiter’s addition would keep Marcus Foligno at right wing, where he has excelled recently.
As he continued to mull over the tweaks, Boudreau consulted with his coaching staff and General Manager Paul Fenton.
“If everybody says, ‘That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,’ I’m probably not going to do it,” he said.
But they didn’t, and roughly an hour and a half before puck drop, Boudreau made the changes official when he wrote them on the team’s whiteboard.
Another four-plus hours later, the moves ended up helping the Wild secure a 3-2 shootout win over the Kings at Xcel Energy Center — the culmination of Boudreau’s prep work but also the adaptability of the players on the ice.
“It shows that we’re pretty versatile, and we can play with whoever’s on our line,” Foligno said.
This wasn’t the first time the Wild delivered after Boudreau scrambled its look.
One of the team’s signature victories came amid a demotion to the fourth line for Niederreiter, an assignment he responded to by scoring a goal and setting up another in a 4-2 rally over the Winnipeg Jets on Nov. 23.
Against Los Angeles, Niederreiter opened the scoring with his second goal in the past three games, set up by center Joel Eriksson Ek and Foligno.
“You just go out there and try to do your best no matter what line you’re on,” Niederreiter said. “It just worked that way.”
His seamless transition, however, does suggest the bottom of the lineup is a niche that’s easy to settle into, perhaps since the expectations aren’t complicated.
“You simplify the game when you’re on our line,” Foligno said. “When you get tossed up in the first two lines, there’s a lot of creativity. Sometimes pucks aren’t going your way. Sometimes you just need to go back to the basics.”
A climb up to the top-six, then, could be challenging, but what fuels players in those instances is the motivation to capitalize on the chance.
“You want to take advantage of those opportunities and try to keep your game the same as before even though there was a line change,” Brown said.
Although he didn’t factor into Staal’s goal, Brown was on the ice applying pressure before defenseman Ryan Suter’s windup nicked Staal’s shin pad and bounced behind Kings goalie Jonathan Quick — ending Staal’s longest goal drought with the team since Jan. 21-Feb. 16, 2017.
Rotations may not be as frequent among the team’s top forwards, but they’re the norm for the fourth line, which has regularly swapped Brown and veteran Matt Hendricks.
And staying consistent despite the switch-ups is the objective, a responsibility that can become magnified when it factors into the Wild’s success like it did Tuesday.
“We work hard, and I think we just keep it simple and we just do the right things,” Foligno said. “We’re not trying to be flashy. We’re trying to be hard-nosed and go to the net, and it seems like that’s how you get rewarded in this league.”
• The Ducks have dropped 12 straight games, their longest losing streak in franchise history. But the skid apparently won’t affect coach Randy Carlyle’s job. Amid the free fall, Anaheim General Manager Bob Murray announced he is not considering a coaching change and is instead focused on the players – an unusual show of support in the NHL this season considering four bench bosses already have been fired from struggling teams.
• Deflections are a normal tool in a goal scorer’s repertoire, but Coyotes rookie Conor Garland capitalized on a unique redirect Saturday when the puck bounced in off his face. After Garland was cross-checked by Oilers defenseman Adam Larsson near the net, a shot from teammate Jordan Oesterle banked off the side of Garland’s head as he tried to get up and behind Edmonton goalie Cam Talbot. Garland immediately left the ice to get repairs, but the memorable game continued once he returned. He scored the game-winner the next period.
• Former Wild interim coach John Torchetti is back behind the bench. He was introduced this week as the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Moncton Wildcats’ new coach and director of hockey operations. Torchetti, who replaced Mike Yeo in 2016, was most recently as assistant with the Detroit Red Wings from 2016-18.
Sarah McLellan covers the Wild and NHL hockey for the Star Tribune.