WINNIPEG – The Wild’s comfy cushion in the Western Conference standings will provide the team with the luxury of lineup experimentation with three weeks until the trade deadline.
Tuesday night, coach Bruce Boudreau tried Charlie Coyle at center for the first time. The big forward was placed between Nino Niederreiter and Jason Pominville, and the move instantly shook out the game’s first three goals.
However, the Wild’s top line looked so tired in a helter-skelter second period, Boudreau said he felt he had to move Coyle back to right wing on that line in the third. The Wild was able to stave off a Winnipeg Jets comeback with a 4-2 victory at MTS Centre.
“It was 3-2 up on the road, so it was, ‘Take care of business, win this period. It’ll make for a huge road trip, heading back home feeling good,’ ” Coyle said.
The Wild did just that, playing a hard-fought third period featuring short shifts and safe puck decisions to complete a 3-1, nine-day road trip.
“I’m really proud, especially in the third when they didn’t have much left in the tank,” Boudreau said. “I thought they played with really good structure and really smart and held them off. That’s what winning hockey’s about.”
Devan Dubnyk, tied for the league lead with 29 wins, made 26 of his 38 saves in the final two periods as the Wild improved to 14-1-2 in its past 17 road games. The Wild, a league-best 18-6-5 on the road, won its 35th game overall after winning 38 all of last season.
The Wild returned home afterward to open an eight-game homestand Wednesday night against sitting-and-waiting Chicago, which is six points behind Minnesota.
In the first 23:33, Coyle picked up three assists, Pominville two goals and one assist, and Niederreiter a goal. Pominville, who has 13 points in the past nine games and became the Wild’s league-leading 10th double-digit goal scorer, later assisted on Niederreiter’s empty-net goal for a four-point night. That goal also gave Niederreiter a team-leading 17.
After Coyle’s goalmouth pass to Pominville made it 3-0, the Jets charged back. The Wild had serious issues with the long line change in the second period, and extended shift lengths by the top line and second and third defense pairs made for a tense third period.
The play of Zach Parise, Eric Staal and rookie Alex Tuch necessitated Coyle’s move back to the line.
“They looked tired,” Boudreau said. “They were getting hemmed in.”
Coyle, who has played center on and off during his Wild career, carried the puck with speed, distributed it well and looked at home. Because Coyle had one goal and 10 assists in his previous 18 games, Boudreau wanted to see what he would look like at center.
The coach wondered, hours before the game, regarding the trade deadline, “Do we need a winger, do we need a center, do we need a depth guy? We have to see if there’s anything that we have to go out and get before March 1, and what better time to do it than in February?”
The result with Coyle was prompt success.
“Proof was in the pudding, I guess,” Boudreau said. “He got three assists, he was all over the ice, he had chances to score. It was his best game in a while.”
The experimentation is the same reason the Wild has Tuch up from the AHL. If he can do an adequate job, maybe the Wild doesn’t need to acquire a winger. But if Coyle can play center, maybe winger makes the most sense for a deadline move since there are few enticing rental centers available.
The Wild also wants to see if it needs a defenseman, which is why Mike Reilly is up and Gustav Olofsson soon might be.
But Boudreau might have found something with Coyle.
“He was buzzing, he was moving, he made some plays,” Pominville said. “Couple turnovers, we were able to get some rushes and were able to pick corners. … He looked good in both positions. He’s a big part of the team and it’s nice that he got rewarded tonight.”