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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Since the Minnesota Wild put their three leading scorers together last week, the new top line of Eric Staal, Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker has piled up a remarkable 11 goals and 15 assists in three games.
For coach Bruce Boudreau, this line might be a keeper.
For the Arizona Coyotes, this line must be kept off the scoreboard on Thursday night at Gila River Arena if the improving Coyotes are to win for the sixth time in eight games.
Arizona beat the Wild 4-3 in overtime in St. Paul, Minn., on Feb. 8 in the only previous meeting between the Western Conference teams this season, with the Coyotes (18-34-10) rallying from a 3-0 deficit. The Wild (36-20-7) have won seven of nine (7-1-1) since.
“They’re playing really well,” coach Rick Tocchet told the Arizona Republic. “We caught them on an off night (Feb. 8), and I don’t think we’re going to catch them on an off night Thursday. It’s a solid club fighting for playoff position, the same thing we’re going to be facing down the stretch here. It’s a very solid team and a good test.”
The stretch drive that unofficially begins Thursday, with only five weeks left in the NHL schedule, was on Boudreau’s mind as well following an 8-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday in which Staal (three goals, two assists) and Zucker (goal, four assists) each enjoyed five-point nights.
“This is the time,” Boudreau said. “Our schedule gets a lot more difficult (now). We played these guys (the Blues) the first game after the trade deadline last year and lost 2-1 and then went on the road for five games. That sort of started our bad month. We didn’t want that to happen this time around.”
It’s certainly not happening now, with the Wild on their first five-game winning streak of the season. The Zucker-Staal-Granlund line pairing is further energizing what already was a hot team that now finds itself closer to second place in the Central Division than it does to falling out of third place in the division.
“We’re just trying to pressure and skate, and pressure (the defensemen) when we can, get pucks to the net and when there’s time to make plays, we’re trying to do that as well,” Zucker said after the Blues game. “Right now, it just seems to be working.”
Staal is among the NHL’s top five scorers with 33 goals, seven in his past four games, and 64 points in 63 games. Granlund, the right wing, has 19 goals and 53 points and left wing Zucker has 26 goals and 51 points. The line combined for 14 points Tuesday, with Zucker getting two goals and two assists.
“It was just one of those nights,” Staal said. “The puck was following us around. We were feeling it.”
Minnesota is 14-15-1 on the road but has win its last four such contests. Arizona is 10-18-4 at Gila River Arena.
Antti Raanta (13-15-6, 2.46 goals-against average), who has two shutout wins in his last three starts and five wins in his last six decisions, is expected to be back in net for Arizona. The newly acquired Darcy Kuemper started and lost 3-1 to Vancouver on Sunday in his Coyotes debut.
Former Coyote Devan Dubnyk (27-11-5, 2.57) is expected to start for Minnesota.