Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen (32) deflects a shot by Minnesota Wild right wing Nino Niederreiter (22) during the second period of Game 3 in the first round of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs in St. Paul, Minn., Monday, April 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Ann Heis
Ann Heisenfelt
April 19, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) The Minnesota Wild have several forwards with higher salaries and higher profiles than Erik Haula.

Determining one who's been more valuable lately than the 25-year-old center and former seventh-round draft pick would be a difficult project.

''He's always dangerous with the puck. Everyone can see that, but I think the way he defends, blocking shots and things like that, those are the things that your teammates see,'' captain Mikko Koivu said, ''and that's what you need in the playoffs.''

With Haula anchoring the third line next to Nino Niederreiter and Jason Pominville, the Wild have a quick trio of checkers they can send at an opponent's most-skilled skaters. They also have a group of players with legitimate scoring potential, as evidenced by their three goals and four assists in a 5-3 victory over the Dallas Stars in Game 3 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series.

''We believe in here. We know what kind team we are when we play great, and I feel like we showed a bunch of glimpses of that,'' Haula said.

Haula, who led the Wild with a plus-21 rating during the regular season and finished with a career-high 14 goals and 20 assists, missed Game 1 because of a lower-body injury. Having him back on the ice has given the Wild a clear boost. Though they lost Game 2, their overall performance was markedly better than the dud they produced in Game 1.

Haula and Niederreiter were the Wild's most productive forwards after interim coach John Torchetti took over following the firing of Mike Yeo. In 27 games after the change, the duo had 20 goals and 20 assists between them. The third member of the trio has differed at times, but the previously quiet Pominville has been right at home on the right wing with these two.

''They play for each other, and that's why they're a very successful line,'' Torchetti said.

Haula and his helpers were on the ice for Patrick Sharp's pair of goals in the first 4:10 of Game 3 that put the Stars up 2-0, so Torchetti instead sent the Mikael Granlund-Koivu-David Jones group at the first Dallas line of Sharp, Cody Eakin and Jamie Benn. The switched worked wonders, with Granlund, Koivu and Jones stifling Benn's trio for the rest of the night.

In turn, Haula, Niederreiter and Pominville had more freedom to play with the puck. The results were obvious.

Just don't expect their critical role as top-line defenders to disappear.

''I just want them to check, and that's the truth. They get points from checking,'' Torchetti said. ''I think when you stray away from your game is when you think you want to get more points, and that's when your game changes and you kind of get on the wrong side of things because you're trying to do something extra. Just do what you do best, and good things will happen.''

Plenty of good things happened Monday to the Wild, even though this was just a small step toward potentially winning a series. Even the normally stoic Koivu displayed a burst of emotion after his power-play goal in the third period, throwing his body against the glass in celebration.

''The way we were playing,'' Koivu said, ''I think everyone was feeling good about our game.''

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