From his spot on the left wing, Wild forward Zach Parise has developed a great appreciation for the complicated job of an NHL center. Parise’s right-hand man — currently Mikael Granlund — has to win faceoffs, lead the offensive charge with speed and vision, and play lockdown defense.
“Wingers, we just float up and down the side of the boards, and hopefully the puck comes to us,’’ Parise said, chuckling. “So much of the play, so much of your offense is dictated through the middle. It’s hard to win if you don’t have good centermen. It’s really hard to win.’’
It only gets harder in the playoffs, making the Wild’s quartet of gifted centers all the more valuable. The team enters Round 2 of the postseason Friday at Chicago with all four of its middlemen — Granlund, Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle and Kyle Brodziak — playing smart, sound hockey through all three zones. Their ability to stay the course will be critical against the Blackhawks, who have one of the NHL’s best centers in Jonathan Toews.
Wild coach Mike Yeo cautioned that the series will not hinge on any particular position, because the Blackhawks are so deep and well-balanced that the Wild will need strong play from everyone to beat them. But he acknowledged that the centers have a big task in a series where puck possession and tight defense will be paramount.
“It’s going to be huge through the middle,’’ Yeo said. “We always talk about goaltending. We can talk about defense, and our centermen are going to be key, because you have to be good at both ends of the ice.
“We’re playing against a very well-rounded team, a very good offensive and defensive team. So they’re going to challenge you at both ends. You’ve got to be ready to go.’’
Granlund, centering Parise and Jason Pominville, is the Wild’s co-leader with four postseason assists and also has a goal. Koivu has won 54 percent of his faceoffs, tops on the roster. Coyle has played a tenacious two-way game, and Brodziak has spearheaded a fourth line that has provided energy and strong defense.
The Blackhawks counter with Toews and a rotating cast in the middle. Coach Joel Quenneville — known for his frequent tinkering with lines — currently has Brad Richards centering the second line, trade-deadline acquisition Antoine Vermette on the third and Marcus Kruger on the fourth. But seven of their forwards, including Andrew Shaw and Andrew Desjardins, can plug in at center.
Toews contributed three goals and five assists in the Blackhawks’ first-round victory over Nashville and is tied atop the NHL with eight points. His play in his own end is equally important to a team that insists on stout defense from its forwards. Over the past two years, Toews has haunted the Wild in the playoffs, scoring three goals and assisting on five others while helping to hold Koivu to one point in 11 games.
But the rest of the Blackhawks centers did not dominate against the Predators — and the Wild’s two youngsters, Granlund and Coyle, return as stronger, more confident players in their third postseason series against Chicago. In addition to creating plays on offense, Coyle said the centers can be just as instrumental on defense, a role he expects to be critical in the second round.
“Toews is a great two-way player and very reliable defensively,’’ Coyle said. “We want to play that same way. We want to be responsible in our defensive end and make things tough on them. I think that way, it will translate to our offensive game.’’
The ability to win faceoffs and control the puck also will be a key to the series, which matches two teams that play a puck-possession style. The Blackhawks won 52 percent of their faceoffs during the regular season — fifth in the NHL — and are winning 49.4 percent of their playoff draws. The Wild had a success rate of 47.1 percent in the first round.
“Our guys have been playing really well,’’ Parise said of the centers. “The way that our guys are going to have to carry the puck up the ice and through the middle and make plays and draw checks, that’s going to be a big part of the series.’’