Wild coach Bruce Boudreau has trusted forwards Marcus Foligno, Joel Eriksson Ek and Luke Kunin to match up against the opposition’s best players ever since he arranged them on the same line at the start of the month, and the three have rewarded that faith.
Not only have they limited the impact of superstars such as Florida’s Aleksander Barkov and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov, but they kept Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin in check at 5-on-5 and completely flummoxed the Dallas duo of Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn.
“I knew they were going to embrace it,” Boudreau said, “and they have.”
But eight games into this assignment, the players have become more than shutdown specialists.
The third line has also emerged as a source for timely offense, and this multifaceted role has the potential to keep the unit a vital arm in the Wild’s operation — especially when the team resumes its playoff push following the All-Star break and bye week, which begin after the Wild plays host to the Red Wings on Wednesday at Xcel Energy Center.
“You look at the future of the team, I think you look at those two [young] guys and you look at Marcus,” Boudreau said. “He’s only 28 as well. What a great starting point.”
Since they were united Jan. 4 against Winnipeg, the line was been tagged for five goals at 5-on-5. One of those came amid a line change, with only two-thirds of the line on the ice.
In that same span, the three have contributed nine goals — most recently chipping in two, including a shorthanded tally by Kunin on Monday in the 5-4 loss to the Panthers. Overall, the three are a combined plus-9 and boast 22 points since they started working together this month.
“We like to play the same type of game,” Eriksson Ek said, “and I think that’s a big reason for us working well so far.”
Although they’re on the ice against some of the most talented players in the league because of their defensive strengths, the three also seem to have recognized that they’re not confined to the Wild’s end. In reality, the best defense is not having to play any at all.
“I feel like we catch, sometimes, top lines kind of sleeping a little bit or just cheating for offense, and I think we’re good at seeing that and forcing turnovers or playing a little bit quicker and getting our feet moving, getting into the offensive zone and making plays,” Foligno said. “… Sometimes those top lines, they’re really good offensive players because sometimes they let their defensive guard down a bit and that’s when we take possession and kind of go the other way with it.”
And those lifts have come at critical times.
Not only did Kunin’s shorthanded goal Monday, set up on a 2-on-1 rush by Eriksson Ek, tie the score, but the right winger’s second of the game put the Wild on top in the third period. In the recent 3-2 victory over the Lightning, Eriksson Ek was responsible for another go-ahead goal. Four of Foligno’s past five goals have either opened the scoring, evened the game or broke a tie.
The left winger’s five goals overall since moving up from the fourth line to the third are tied for the most on the Wild in that time, and Foligno and Kunin are both tied with defenseman Ryan Suter for the most points in January with eight.
Eriksson Ek isn’t too far behind with six, flexing a more consistent offensive presence that the Wild has been hoping to see from the center since he’s settled into the NHL as a regular after getting drafted in the first round in 2015. Same with Kunin, another first-round prospect (2016) turned pro the organization has been counting on to deliver. The 22-year-olds already have established career highs in multiple offensive categories this season.
“You can see the growth in Ek and Kunny,” Boudreau said. “Talking a year ago, Ek wouldn’t have made those 2-on-1 passes that you’ve seen in the last little while but now he’s making them. And Kunny would have maybe not got the shot away, but he’s getting the opportunity.”
Defense might have been what brought them together, but offense is certainly helping them stay together.
And that’s important to have both ends covered by the same line.
“I think a lot of times when you play against the other team’s most offensive guys,” Kunin said, “I think there’s going to be opportunities, some defensive breakdowns. We’ve just been taking advantage of it. Things have been going well. We just want to keep progressing.”