ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Wild finally gave their fans a reason to stand and cheer.
Outscored 22-8 over four losses in a row on home ice, they faced just the right foe for stopping the slide, the Edmonton Oilers.
Goalie Niklas Backstrom ended a six-start winless streak, beating his favourite opponent in the Wild’s 4-2 victory over the Oilers on Thursday night.
Backstrom, who made 33 saves, has never lost to the Oilers, improving to 14-0 in his career against them. The Wild beat Edmonton at home for the 16th straight time, matching the longest current run of consecutive home wins against one team in the NHL. They’ve outscored the Oilers 58-21 during the stretch.
Backstrom shrugged off that success like he always does.
“For me I don’t really think about it,” Backstrom said. “I think I try to approach every team the same way. It doesn’t matter who we play against.”
Wild coach Todd Richards, though, had a theory.
“I think there is a psyche to it. I really do,” he said. “It’s almost one of those things where you’re waiting for bad things to happen just because of the way things have gone in the past with playing in a certain building.”
Oilers defenceman Tom Gilbert offered his own bad-luck view.
“We’re just not getting the bounces here,” he said. “Obviously it’s a tough start when two goals go off your own skate. It’s tough to come back from that.”
Gilbert and Linus Omark each had power-play goals—a rarity for Edmonton’s struggling special teams unit—but the last-place Oilers fell to 0-8-3 in their last 11 games.
Credit Backstrom, again.
“He stands on his head a lot when he’s playing against us, and that’s why he’s a great goalie,” Gilbert said. “He’s tough to beat. We gave ourselves a lot of opportunities and back-door plays, and he covers the net as well as anyone in the league.”
Nikolai Khabibulin started his seventh straight game in goal for Edmonton without a win, his last coming on Feb. 17. He was unlucky at first, with Antti Miettinen’s goal glancing of Ladislav Smid’s skate, and Marek Zidlicky’s hitting off Jeff Petry’s in a span of 35 seconds midway through the first period.
The Oilers played hard, though, despite several of their top skaters finished for the season due to injuries.
“We’re not packing it in,” coach Tom Renney said. “We’re not quitting in any games. We’re not quitting in a single period, and we’re not quitting in a shift. As much as that seems like cosmetic surgery, it’s real. If you’re going to redefine your team and you’re going to rebuild an organization, you’d better start with that first and foremost.”
Sam Gagner, Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky headline the list of absences. Those are Edmonton’s top three scorers.
“You can only imagine what this would look like if we had some other players here,” Renney said. “We don’t. We’re not going to dwell on it. This is it, and that’s that.”
This late-season tilt between division foes was one of those try-not-to-get-hurt games, but Miettinen took a face-first spill into the boards on a cross-check by Jim Vandermeer, shortly after a four-minute high-stick penalty on Miettinen. There were other mini-scuffles that broke out, too, though no serious injuries were apparent.
Brad Staubitz and Martin Havlat also scored for Minnesota, which has won two in a row since an eight-game winless streak that ended all hope of a playoff spot.
“That stint we went through was really tough on all the guys mentally,” Staubitz said. “That was something we needed as a group, a good team win like that.”
But perspective was pervasive.
“There’s always that empty feeling. You win the game and you’re happy you won the game, but you always want more,” Richards said. “From now until the end of the year that’s the way I’m going to feel. Hopefully everyone else feels the same way.”
NOTES: Oilers rookie Chris Vande Velde, a high school star in Moorhead, Minn., played his first pro game in his home state. … Gilbert, of Bloomington, is also a Minnesotan. Cullen, from Moorhead, notched his 500th career point and ranks eighth in NHL history in scoring by Minnesota natives. Phil Housley is the leader. … Gilbert scored for the first time in 49 games since Dec. 10.