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Fourth Line Factor

Teams in all sports are constantly searching for a winning formula. The Minnesota Wild are on a nice roll right now. One key component to the Wild’s recent success has been the play of the fourth line of Kurtis Gabriel, Tyler Graovac, and Chris Stewart.
Image courtesy of Charles Krupa / Associated Press
The Wild bring a five game winning streak into tonight’s tilt with the Predators in Nashville. The streak started with a rare 3-2 shootout win in Edmonton on December 4th. As noted by the Star Tribune’s Michael Russo, a critical moment in this game came courtesy of the Wild’s fourth line. Trailing 1-0 in the latter stages of an ugly first period, Gabriel crushed Oiler Matt Benning with a clean, but aggressive hit in the neutral zone. At the faceoff to start the line’s very next shift, Edmonton’s Zack Kassian challenged Gabriel to drop the gloves in response to the hit on Benning.

The role of fighting in hockey is about as polarizing a topic as there is in sports. I have made my own personal feelings on the subject known in this very space, and I have no intentions of re-hashing that here. The fact of the matter presently is that fighting still a part of the game, and it has made a resurgence of sorts for the Minnesota Wild. The Wild has nine fighting majors (16th out of 30 teams) through 28 games so far this season. For comparison, the 2015-2016 Wild had 11 fighting majors over 82 games. Of the nine fighting majors so far this season, five have come in the last five games. Gabriel has racked up four majors himself in the last five Wild games, all of which resulted in wins.

Forty seconds after Gabriel squared off with Kassian, Charlie Coyle tied the game after a nifty Nino Niederreiter feed. In his post-game blog, Russo wrote this:

Gabriel got mad props in the locker room for the move, and the fight was definitely in response to Gabriel crushing an Oiler his previous shift. Boudreau felt the turning points of the game came in the first with Gabriel’s hit, then Gabriel’s fight, then a Chris Stewart big hit.

There’s no way to put a value or quantify the effect Gabriel’s play had on this game. But Boudreau’s post-game comments made it clear the Wild felt the impact.

The Wild’s next game after Edmonton was a 3-2 victory in Toronto. Stewart put the Wild up 2-0 after taking a beautiful breakaway pass from Jared Spurgeon. The play also marked the first NHL career point for Gabriel, who made a nice pass to Spurgeon to start the play.
Posted Image

Gabriel would also drop the gloves with Toronto’s Roman Polak in response to a nasty hit on Stewart. There was plenty of praise for Gabriel from the coach again, courtesy of Russo’s post-game blog:

“He’s making the team bigger. He gets his first point tonight, gets into a fight, does a good job, cheers on the bench. That’s pretty good stuff, and he’s making Stewy play better, too.”

The Wild then returned home last Friday with another win over the Oilers, this time 3-2. There were no fights in this game, but Boudreau again sang the praises of his fourth line:

“It’s great. I mean, they bring energy -- all three of those guys,” Boudreau said. “And Grao had a couple really good chances. And they play big; they give the rest of the team some protection. And it didn’t matter where I played them, if it was their fourth line. After the first period, I quit caring who they were playing against, because they were doing a good job -- other than playing against McDavid. I wanted Mikko against McDavid all night.”

On Gabriel, Boudreau said, “He’s a physical presence out there, and he’s support for Stewie if Stewie wants to get a little bit mean in there, you know? We didn’t have that secondary toughness, and I thought that was very important, and Gabes has given it to us. I didn’t know how well Stewie would play on left wing, but he’s played very well there.”

Sunday night, December 11th, the Wild knocked off Central Division rival St. Louis by the score of 3-1. Gabriel fought Blues enforcer Ryan Reeves. It has been a while since the Wild have had anyone who could stand up to Reeves physical style of play. Gabriel again received props for answering the bell:

Kurtis Gabriel tried to spark the team with a fight against heavyweight Ryan Reaves, and in (Matt) Dumba’s mind, “It started with Gabes getting that fight and I think the boys were just rolling after that.”

Now, the easy argument to be made here is, ‘Why do professional hockey players need someone to start a fight to spark their team? They’re pros, shouldn’t they be fired up to play every night?’ A valid question, for sure. But like it or not, this is starting to become a part of the formula for this Wild winning streak.
All five of the Wild’s goals came from the top three lines in Tuesday night’s 5-1 win over Florida. But the fourth line still made its presence known. Both Stewart and Gabriel dropped the gloves in separate scraps with Florida’s Dylan McIlrath.

Five straight wins for the Wild, with five fights over that span. Not necessarily a case of ‘cause and effect,’ but something is definitely happening here. Is Gabriel and to a lesser extent Stewart’s willingness to fight the key to this Wild winning streak? I don’t think so. But Boudreau is showing more confidence in the Wild’s fourth line with every passing game now. If the Wild thinks this newly found element of toughness is making the team play better- like a good placebo effect, if you will- then it is. And when teams find ingredients in a formula that brings them success, don’t expect to see a change in the recipe anytime soon.

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Thank you Crash Davis
    • Doubles likes this

You have no idea how close I was to using lines from Bull Durham...

I have been pleasantly surprised by Graovac, since he came back. I think there's something to be said for his play as well. 

    • Doubles likes this

Great stuff!


It seems like Gabriel and Graovac have had a good affect on Stewart as well. During the stretch I can't think of many stupid penalties by Stewart. At least not like the start of the season where he definitely took some bad penalties at bad times. I wonder if it ends up being that Gab or Gray are a bit smarter being spark-plugs?


Just like players tune out coaches yelling, I wonder how long this line can spark the others?





    • Doubles likes this
Giles Ferrell
Dec 15 2016 09:18 AM


I have been pleasantly surprised by Graovac, since he came back. I think there's something to be said for his play as well. 

Agreed Bergy. Everyone talks about Gabriel and Stewart, but Graovac really impresses me nightly on this line.

    • Doubles likes this

Thing with Graovac;  Remember, he had won a job out of training camp last season.  Then he pulled his Groinerik early on, and pretty much ended up having a lost season.


Then this year at camp, Fletcher had tipped off Boudreau to save a roster spot for Graovac.  Boudreau was completely unimpressed with Grao's camp, and subsequently sent down to Iowa.  Props to Grao for going down to Des Moines, working on his game, getting back up, and becoming a valued member of the team.  

    • Giles Ferrell, Mike Berg, rghrbek and 2 others like this

I like Graovac only having 2 pims



Gabriel has 24 this year but it looks like 20 of those are for fighting.



Still early, but for an energy line they aren't taking a ton a penalties


I guess the point I'm going for is that they aren't costing the wild anything by taking needless penalties,etc. So I don't get peoples negative aspects of them

    • Doubles and Mike Berg like this

I think having Gabriel on a line with Stewart has helped Stewart out a lot. I don't know that he's at his best when he's the teams top muscle. As the 2nd in line, he focuses more on playing hockey, and less on trying to do the annoying stuff he spent the first part of the season doing (getting crappy penalties).


I also think Graovac is taking advantage of this opportunity. Like Doubles said above, he went to Iowa, busted his ass, and is coming back strong.


Having a fourth line that is playing solid helps the team a lot. Sure, it'd be nice if they pumped in some more points, but they forecheck aggressively and put pressure on the other team. I think that helps the other three lines.




I've written too much.

    • Doubles likes this
Brett Marshall
Dec 15 2016 06:36 PM
Graovac, at least from what I've watched, just works his ass off. I think he knows he's not the most talented player, but he recognizes his size and he uses it to his advantage. He's always going hard, every shift, and that's what I love about him. I love what Gabriel has brought to the table. That entire line knows its role. Be physical, spark energy, and take chances when you get them (whether that's a fight or a offensive opportunity, or getting a chance to stay in the NHL-Graovac & Gabriel). And I think my favorite part of all this and this winning streak is the Wild have 4 lines that are working & clicking with chemistry. When's the last time we had 4 stable lines?
Stewart trying to make me look like an ass with the penalty there.
Dec 17 2016 11:16 AM

Great article Doubles!Some of us have been crowing for toughness for the past few years for the Wild.Those that minimize it's importance simply don't understand it's impact on an entire roster, even in today's pussified version of the NHL. 

The evidence is there with the WIld's record since the Gabriel callup. This move (and the Stewart resigning) are all the head coaches doing but I give Fletcher credit for taking the input and allowing them to happen.