VANCOUVER – Not since … Chris Schmidt, Kevin Hilton and Kelly Hurd has Bruce Boudreau had a shutdown line that scores as prolifically as Jason Zucker, Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund.
Those were the names from the 1999 East Coast Hockey League Mississippi Sea Wolves that rolled off the Wild coach’s tongue Saturday night when asked if he ever has had a shutdown line like the one he deploys so trustworthily every game for the Wild.
The questioner meant in the NHL, but …
“We won the Cup, I could play them against anybody, and they scored,” Boudreau said, laughing, after citing the famed Schmidt-Hilton-Hurd trio that combined for 48 points during the Sea Wolves’ 18-game run to the Kelly Cup 18 years ago.
Of course, it’s the Zucker-Koivu-Granlund threesome that Boudreau claimed last week he would take over any line in the NHL right now.
After they combined for four goals and four assists in a 6-3 victory over Vancouver on Saturday night, Boudreau repeated the assertion by saying, “You saw it for yourself [why].”
Many hockey fans — and fantasy partakers — probably love the line because of how much it scores and frankly how entertaining it is. Boudreau loves the line because he can use it against any opposing top line and fully expect it will get the job done.
Against the Canucks, Boudreau deployed the Zucker-Koivu-Granlund line against the Sedin twins all night long. Like Jacques Lemaire used to do with Wes Walz, if Daniel and Henrik hopped the boards and the Koivu line wasn’t on the ice, the first and fourth lines knew to cut their shifts short and make a beeline for the bench.
“That was the first time all year we’ve had a hard match on the road where two lines would come off if they saw [the Sedins] on,” Boudreau said, “and they were plus-4, so I think that’s enough said.”
Since Boudreau assembled the line Nov. 25, Zucker has 14 goals and 30 points in 32 games and is plus-24. Koivu has 13 goals and 30 points in 31 games and is plus-30. Granlund has 11 goals and 36 points in 32 games and is plus-27.
Overall this season, they are the top three forwards in the NHL in plus-minus. Zucker leads the league with a plus-33 and Koivu and Granlund are each plus-30, tied with Jared Spurgeon. In between Zucker and those three is Ryan Suter at plus-32.
Granlund is riding a 12-game point streak into Tuesday’s game at Winnipeg with five goals and 12 assists in that span. In 51 games, Granlund already has established career highs with 15 goals and a team-leading 48 points and is an assist from a career high.
In 51 games, Zucker has a career-high 22 assists and 38 points and is five goals from tying his career high of 21. Koivu, with 16 goals and 38 points, is on pace for a career high in goals and on pace for his highest point total since 2010-11.
But as Granlund likes to say, their “thing” is defense.
“With [Granlund] and then [Zucker], both guys for me, what makes it the most fun is the responsible two-way hockey that they play,” Koivu said. “We want to be a good team in this league. We all have to do that, and those two are doing that right now, and they want to get better at it. They take a lot of pride [in] their defensive part of the game. So for myself, that’s the best part.”
Granlund recorded his first career hat trick Saturday and teed up Koivu with a beautiful no-look pass. What each goal had in common was the fact the initial plays developed in the defensive zone.
“A lot of time in our D-zone, Mikko is really good down low, he’s really good defending,” Granlund said. “And then when we get the puck, me and Zucks are usually going, and with Zucks’ speed, we get something off those rushes.”
Koivu said the line knows its chief job is to be a shutdown line. Scoring is the bonus.
“With those two, the key is we’re trying not to cheat on any play and then we try to help each other out,” Koivu said. “If one’s going, one’s there to back you up and things like that. To be honest, I think it all starts in the D-zone for us.”
Zucker said after Wednesday’s 5-1 loss at Calgary, the line wanted to come out against Vancouver and lead by example. They weren’t happy with their game against the Flames, both as a team and line.
As dominant as the line has been at times this season, the Canucks had no answer as to how to slow them down.
“We dictated a little bit more, got back to our game, played well defensively and let that carry over to the offense,” Zucker said. “We tried doing that from the first shift, and we had some success.”
And, the three helped the Wild avoid suffering consecutive regulation losses for the first time in three months.
“Once you start letting it get two, and then three, then all of the sudden that turns into six and seven and it’s hard to get out of that sometimes,” Zucker said. “So if you can nip it in the bud real quick and bounce back right away when you don’t get down on yourselves, that’s huge for us.”