The return of Erik Haula to the lineup has been a sparkplug igniting a diminished offense for the Wild against the Stars. Even though he may still not be 100% healthy, his inclusion has given the roster a different complexion and allowed John Torchetti to deploy a 3 line attack rather than two offensive lines with the other two just hoping to survive against the Stars' onslaught as they were able to dictate the matchup on home ice. Haula's reunion with Jason Pominville and Nino Niederreiter broke the team loose for 3 goals and 7 total points between them when the team needed them most. With top scoring threats Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek out of the lineup, it was clear that this line would need to deliver in the playoffs, as they had shown their ability to in the regular season. Today we take a deeper dive into what makes this line so special and their potential to continue to produce.
Jarret Stoll and transition defense against the St
Reputations are hard to shake. Just ask Jarrett Stoll, who has been on a mission to prove that he's not the defensive wonder-vet that most everybody insists he is.
When John Torchetti took over in mid February, he immediately showed that he was not afraid to make adjustments to the lineup in order to spark some players and hold others accountable. One of the more interesting combinations was formulated immediately, with all three players taking very different routes to arriving in the combination. Nino Niederreiter had spent much of his time already on the third line during the season with a couple of forrays into the top 6. His previous combination with Mikko Koivu and Jason Zucker was dazzling while both of the other players got off to a strong start in the season, but the line regressed and was split up. Nino's production never wavered and he continued to quietly put up a very strong defensive season and was placed on the shut-down line.
Jason Pominville was mired in the longest goal drought of his career and suffering from a poor season overall. He was demoted from the top 6. Erik Haula was given a vote of confidence by Torchetti in both word and deed as the coach quickly sat down with Haula to give him a pep talk and promoted him from his longtime position of 4th line center to take on a more offensive role. The results were immediate. Each of the players would go on a tear to help pull the team out of its sinking spiral and become one of the quickest-producing lines in the league over the remaining games.
So what is it that makes this line such a special combination? The answer to that begins with a closer look at how Nino Niederreiter affects the players around them:
Across the board, being on the ice with Niederreiter means that that you either generate more shots, limit shots against or in many cases, both. Nino has been a positive possession driver amongst his teammates on both sides of the puck. But the eye test is an even more effective way to look at the value he provides. No one on the team is stronger along the boards or on the forecheck. Nino is often found deep in the opponents zone and consistently posts the effort to control the puck behind the opposing net. This gives his teammates the confidence to dump the puck into the zone, knowing that he will retrieve and control it. Nino's big frame allows him to absorb hits and retain control of the puck while his linemates set up the cycle in the offensive zone. Controlling the puck this way also keeps the puck out of the hands of opponents and limits their ability to shoot.
Erik Haula has long been known for his speed. It has been on display throughout his career as he has been charged with shutting down opponent's top scoring threats and his constant breakaways on the penalty kill. But something changed in his game the moment Torchetti took over: he started to crash the net. With his responsibilities previously being on the other side of the puck, Haula often would hang back in the zone to maintain defensive posturing. This impacted his ability to use his speed and show the scoring touch he showed throughout his college career at the University of Minnesota. Now unleashed to rely on his hockey instincts and use his tools on both sides of the puck, a much more assertive and confident Haula appeared when he was liberated from the dog house and his fourth-line role.
If there is one thing we all know Jason Pominville will do, it is shoot the puck. While this fact has frustrated the fan base from time to time as he struggled with shooting accuracy, Pominville has always held a shoot-first mentality. This has led him to multiple 30-goal seasons over the course of his career. He also excels at his positioning when he plays without the puck, so he is consistently in a good position to make a play in either direction. He has always been a solid 2-way player for that reason and even though he struggled to score this year, the defensive side of his game hasn't faltered.
When you put all of this together, what you find is an extremely balanced line with players who complement each other in very meaningful ways that drive their play. Though all three players are positionally sound and solid passers, their success together is a product of their unique abilities coming together to provide the perfect skills for the scheme they employ.
Hockey Wilderness system's specialist Alec Schmidt adds, "Their skills are very complementary in that Haula brings speed to force pressure on the forecheck, Nino is the most effective player on the team as far as board battles go. So those two are basically perfect for each other. And Pomminville fits because he's a guy who is defensively responsible and doesn't mind playing without the puck. And when he does get the puck he generally has a shooters mentality. Not to mention they're all great distributors of the puck and very positionally sound."
Their strengths feed into each other and the results have been clear on the scoreboard. They have the potential to be the x-factor in this series even though Dallas will likely do everything they can to tame them.