When Pierre-Marc Bouchard scored his game-winning goal Tuesday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, it was the first Minnesota Wild goal by a forward not on their top line since the season opener. That says two things: One, Minnesota needs better production from lines two, three and four. And two, that first line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley is going pretty darn well.
Through six games, the Wild are in first place in the Northwest and that trio is doing the heavy lifting up front.
Parise's success has been well-documented and Koivu is doing exactly what he does when he's healthy. It's Heatley who might be the biggest benefactor of the talent around him.
The 32-year-old has six points in six games and his four goals put him right in the mix among the league leaders.
"He's probably more comfortable with everything around him system-wise," Koivu said of Heatley, in his second year with the Wild after two years in San Jose. "New team, new city last year -- I'm sure it helps him to have a year under his belt with this team."
It also helps to have to elite forwards on your line. Heatley started fairly well last season too, but his production dropped off significantly when injuries kept Koivu out of the lineup. In February and March, Koivu played in a total of 10 games. Heatley scored in three of those games. In the 18 February and March games he played without Koivu in the lineup, Heatley scored only once.
Now add Parise, and there's a lot more space out there in which to operate.
"Quite a bit. They get in real good on the forecheck ... it's my job to get in there, grab the puck or create more room for them and then get open after that," Heatley said. "A lot of what we get is off the forecheck and time in the other team's zone."
Like most players enjoying early success, his stats are still a bit skewed. He won't keep up his 23.5 shooting percentage all season long. But similarly Minnesota's 5-on-5 save percentage of .853 (advanced stats per behindthenet.ca) when Heatley is on the ice will improve, which could further bump up the Wild. As will more time for Heatley with Koivu and Parise to learn their tendencies.
"They're two great players. They're similar in a lot of ways," Heatley said. "They're both good one-on-one players, real good on the forecheck, real strong on the puck. For me, I had a good lockout, got healthy again. We seemed to click right away."
Heatley isn't the only star poised for a rebound season. These four are well on their way to reaffirming star status:
1. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks -- His 66 points last year was a career low and continued a concerning decline in offensive production after peaking with 88 points during Chicago's Stanley Cup season in 2009-10. Kane didn't score a goal in the playoffs and has one goal in his past 13 playoff games since scoring the Stanley Cup-winner against Philadelphia. He was especially hurt by Chicago's horrible power play last year and hasn't scored more than two power-play goals in a single month since November 2010. When he showed up for this year's shortened training camp, coach Joel Quenneville saw a much more focused Kane eager to start the season.
"[It was] noticeable in his approach and his attitude and his demeanor," Quenneville said. "Whether it's on the ice or walking around, his focus is in the right place. We like the commitment and the focus and preparation he's put forward."
That focus and preparation is paying off with production. He has nine points through six games and has helped a Chicago power play that should be potent return to the top 10 in the league (26.9 percent). He's piling up assists in part because Chicago's shooting percentage is 19.44 percent when he's on the ice during 5-on-5.
2. Thomas Vanek, Buffalo Sabres -- Vanek's 26 goals last season was his lowest total since his rookie season, but with three goals in five games so far this year (he also has seven assists) he's on a pace to eclipse last year's total by two and do it during a shortened season. Since starting the season with a five-point effort against the Flyers, Vanek has at least one point in every game. Vanek's PDO (which adds on-ice save percentage at even strength plus on-ice shooting percentage) is 951, which suggests there's room for improvement if the Sabres can improve on the .833 save percentage they're maintaining when he's on the ice (PDO usually trends to 1000). Buffalo's schedule hasn't been especially challenging with two games against the Hurricanes and Maple Leafs and the season opener against a struggling Flyers team. Vanek's production gets a nice test Thursday when Buffalo travels to Boston to take on the stingy Bruins.
3. Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens -- Injuries, including knee surgery, have robbed Markov of ice time over the past three years. He hasn't played more than 45 games during the regular season since the 2008-09 season and played in a total of 20 the previous two seasons. He's back, perhaps a little slower, but as productive as ever. He has four goals and three of them have been game-winners for the Canadiens. He has seven points in five games and has lifted Montreal's power play back among the league's best. Their power-play percentage is at 29.6 percent, putting the Canadiens at No. 6 in the league. Last year, the Montreal power play was one of the league's worst, finishing No. 28 overall at 14.3 percent. The return of P.K. Subban should boost things further and allow Habs coach Michel Therrien to ease up on his use of Markov, who is averaging 25:03 of ice time this season, a number that needs to be lower if they want to keep him healthy.
"Eric started last year with a lot of bad luck," Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford wrote in an email Tuesday.
The numbers back up Rutherford. Staal's shooting percentage was just 9.2 percent, his lowest since 2003-04. Carolina's on-ice shooting percentage with Staal during 5-on-5 was a below average 8.35 percent last year. Staal wasn't getting a lot of bounces, but things picked up dramatically after the All-Star Game. Staal had 34 points in 31 games and was a plus-3. That production has continued into this season. He has six points in his past three games, including a hat trick against Buffalo, after starting the season without a point in his first two games.
"His work ethic and chemistry with his linemates have given him a good start this season," Rutherford said.