NASHVILLE – Proving the age-old sports — and especially hockey — cliché true, the Mikko Koivu line has proved almost nightly during the Wild’s record 10-game winning streak that the best defense is a good offense.
With the Jason Zucker-Koivu-Mikael Granlund trio, their sweltering production of late starts with their play away from the puck.
Koivu, the 12th-year veteran and eighth-year captain who has had a Selke Trophy-worthy first 33 games, is being complemented by two fast, tenacious, smart wingers, coach Bruce Boudreau says, which explains why the coach trusts playing them in all situations, against opposing teams’ top guns and why they’re spending a lot of time in the offensive zone lately.
The group, which Boudreau says embraces the challenge of being a shutdown line, has become prolific since a patient Zucker, who started the season on the fourth line, was elevated.
“After a long sort of experiment, Zuck has come in and fit in like a glove there. He gives you that element now, he’s scoring and he’s skating and he’s defending, something that people have told me before he’s not really good at before this season,” Boudreau said. “But I think he’s done a tremendous job. When he moves his legs, he’s a very good player, and he’s very smart.
“And Mikko’s done the same thing for the last 10 years. He’s so responsible out there, it’s really nice to have him out there.”
A look at the stats for each member of the line shows how well they’re playing:
• Zucker has scored six goals and nine assists in the past 15 games, and he leads all NHL forwards with a plus-22. He has had two negative rating games all season, and his 14 assists already are a single-season career high.
• Koivu, who ranks 18th among all NHL forwards in average ice time (19 minutes, 54 seconds per game), has seven goals and eight assists in the past 16 games with at least a point in 12 of those games. His 428 faceoff wins rank fourth in the NHL, his 773 faceoffs taken rank third and his .554 faceoff winning percentage ranks ninth for centermen who have taken at least 400 draws. It’s a big reason why the line possesses the puck so much.
• Granlund has eight assists and 11 points in the past nine games, registering at least a point in eight of those games. He has scored eight goals, five shy of his career high. His 17 assists are tied with Eric Staal for first on the team and his 25 points rank third. Koivu and Granlund are each plus-16.
For all lines in the entire NHL that have played at least 150 minutes together, they have the highest expected goals-for percentage (63.98), per Corsica.hockey.
That’s an advance stats metric based on shot locations and league averages of scoring from said shot locations.
“The puck’s going in. That’s the difference,” said Koivu, the Wild’s all-time leader with 796 games, 407 assists and 577 points. “Early on, it wasn’t going in even if we had lots of quality chances. Some nights the puck just finds the way and some nights it doesn’t.
“But as long as you keep creating. We need to play good defense in order to win hockey games here. We can’t start cheating. We have to stay to our structure.”
Extending the winning streak to 11 will be a challenge. Teams are not permitted to practice or travel during the three-day holiday hiatus, so the Wild will gather Tuesday morning for its charter to Nashville. The morning skate will be the first opportunity for the team to get on the ice since beating the Rangers on Friday.
Still, Koivu felt the timing of the break was perfect.
“It’s the half point of the season, but I think Christmas is always the point you’re looking forward to,” he said. “You get a chance to spend time with your families and get a little break. I think that’s a great thing. When you’re winning, it’s a great feeling.
“More important is the way we’re playing right now. For sure it’s great to have a [franchise] record, but as a player, you look more at the way we play and being able to win in tough buildings and against some good hockey teams.”