The Wild's goal this postseason: scoring more goals

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At the dead end that the Wild keeps running into during the playoffs is a wasteland of offenses gone bad.

No scoring in a pivotal Game 3 a year ago. Back-to-back shutouts to get eliminated in 2018. One goal in three consecutive losses the season before that.

"You have to score if you want to win," Kevin Fiala said.

But an offense that has held the Wild back in past Stanley Cup playoffs is now something that could make a difference this season.

Rookie Kirill Kaprizov ranks in the top 10 in the NHL in goals, Joel Eriksson Ek has become a cleanup specialist in front of the net, and Fiala's playmaking is as dynamic as his shot.

What makes this trio even more dangerous, though, is that they have thrived mostly independent of each other.

The Wild's top three scorers star on their own lines, a unique balance that ignited one of the deepest attacks in the regular season.

And that depth could turn into even more of an asset in the matchup-driven playoffs, a potential pick-your-poison dilemma for the Golden Knights when they face the Wild in a first-round, best-of-seven series that begins Sunday afternoon in Vegas.

"It's overwhelming sometimes playing against us because we have four lines that can come in waves and when we get going, that's what it's looked like," forward Marcus Johansson said. "That's not fun to play against."

Depth by designAfter years of top-heavy lineups, the Wild put a new tactic in motion last offseason.

Wild General Manager Bill Guerin acquired players that could handle multiple positions, bringing in the experienced Johansson, two-time Stanley Cup champion Nick Bonino and Nick Bjugstad.

Coach Dean Evason had so many options that the team's plan for center kept evolving. And two who have the job now, Ryan Hartman and Nico Sturm, started the season on the wing.

"We knew that we had the versatility of plugging people into different spots because they've played there before," Evason said. "We didn't know if they fit, and we've had some fluctuation on who's playing wing and who's not and center ice. But we knew that we had a lot of people that could play major roles on our hockey club.

"Do we want to be a four-line team? Absolutely."

Before long, that turned into the Wild's identity: a shift after shift pursuit that buoyed the scoring supply early in the year when the power play was on the fritz. The team scored three or more times in 38 games, had an eight-goal onslaught that tied the franchise record and registered the second-most third-period tallies in the league with 67.

"We feel like this year's different," winger Marcus Foligno said. "We just have a little more offensive power and a little bit more creativity, and things have been going in."

Add in a mobile defense, and the Wild ended up with the ninth-best offense in the NHL — racking up just as many goals (180) as the reigning Stanley Cup champion Lightning and only four fewer than NHL leading scorer Connor McDavid's Oilers.

No team had more 15-plus point scorers than the Wild (17), and the Wild boasted 16 players with at least five goals; only the Predators had more with 17.

"The teams that do have the most success do get scoring from every line," Bonino said.

And what helped spread the wealth was utilizing Kaprizov, Eriksson Ek and Fiala at separate times rather than bundling them together into a powerhouse line.

"We didn't need it," Fiala said.

Going their separate waysKaprizov and Fiala have collaborated on special teams, a duo that's been involved in seven of the past 15 power play goals, and Eriksson Ek has crossed paths with both players individually occasionally.

But the three have rarely been on the ice at the same time at 5-on-5.

In fact, it's happened for only 5 minutes, 30 seconds the entire season, according to Natural Stat Trick.

While some of hockey's top producers are tandems — such as McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton, Toronto's Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen — the Wild's go-to scorers don't usually rely on each other to generate offense.

Kaprizov had undeniable chemistry with Mats Zuccarello, and after a torrid stretch with Victor Rask earlier in the season, the two wingers are now alongside Hartman.

Eriksson Ek centers the No. 1 line, a unit with Jordan Greenway and Foligno that is the Wild's best at shutting down the other team despite facing the stiffest competition.

And after rotating through different centers and wingers, Fiala is clicking lately with Rask and Johansson.

Even the fourth line, led by Bonino and Sturm, has been consistent — so much so that the Wild doesn't have to match lines.

Not only is there a symmetry to the depth chart, but Kaprizov, Eriksson Ek and Fiala each have their own scoring style, and that allows the Wild to up the degree of difficulty for the opponent since it's constantly issuing fresh looks.

"Some guys are more hesitant to dump the puck in," Bonino said. "They want to make a play. They want to hang onto it, and other guys definitely want to get in and hit guys and dislodge pucks and get pucks back. I think we have four lines that can do a little bit of everything, and that definitely makes it tougher to defend."

Variety packKaprizov is the firecracker of the bunch, an explosive combination of speed and skill.

Only seven players scored more in the regular season than he did, his 27 goals and 51 points pacing the Wild and all first-year players — a prolific debut that's made Kaprizov the runaway favorite for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.

He's also slippery, an elusiveness that he uses to emerge from board battles with the puck and discover open space undetected.

"He's always in the right spot," Johansson said. "He is where the puck is going. The puck finds him, and it's fun to watch. Not many players have that skill, if you want to call it that. He's just unbelievable."

Eriksson Ek's approach is much more cantankerous, an unapologetic aggressiveness that bristles the opposition.

Aside from feasting on the forecheck, Eriksson Ek has no problem bulldozing a path to the net, where he scored many of his career-high 19 goals. The game turns into a turf war when he's on the ice, and Eriksson Ek always looks unfazed by the confrontation.

"It's incredible his drive, his will, his size, his strength," Evason said. "He is an absolute beast. He's just a hard, hard guy to play against."

As for Fiala, he is the hybrid.

His 20 goals and 20 assists prove he has the vision to create and the finesse to execute, but Fiala packages those attributes with the assertiveness to take charge. He puts the most pucks on net, propels the power play and delivers when the Wild needs it — posting a team-high five game-winning goals and assisting on three others.

Sometimes, his decision-making is too edgy, and he has gotten reprimanded for being risky. But when he's on point, he makes the Wild better.

"He's one of those guys who can break a game wide open," Bonino said.

Strength in numbersParity fuels the Wild, but the team wouldn't be so proportionate if Kaprizov, Eriksson Ek and Fiala weren't in harmony.

And the playoffs will only brighten the spotlight on them.

"I like pressure," Fiala said. "I love that part, the playoffs, do or die. I love it."

Fiala is used to the attention.

Last season, he was the Wild's best player in the qualifying round vs. Vancouver. And once the Canucks neutralized Fiala, who retaliated with penalties, they ran away with the series and ousted the Wild.

"I had all summer to think about it," Fiala said, "and that's my big goal: to stay focused."

A determined Fiala is important for the Wild, but what makes the team an even tougher code to crack is the same strategy that guided the group to the playoffs and that's not being a one-dimensional operation.

"It has to continue like that," Fiala said. "It's not going to be always the same guys that score, especially in the playoffs with a little more physicality and shutdown. So, all the guys have to step up and it's been great the whole season. It's been helping. That's why I feel we are winning a lot because all the lines are rolling and scoring so they can't stop us.

"We did it in the regular season. That's awesome. But we have to do it now in the playoffs otherwise it doesn't really matter."

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