ST. PAUL, Minn. – There is no mystery about who will be in Minnesota’s net these days, and Niklas Backstrom doesn’t appear to be in need of much rest.
The way the Wild have been playing, their opponents are the ones who could use a break.
Backstrom made 33 saves for his first shutout of the season, and Ryan Suter had two more assists, leading Minnesota past the San Jose Sharks 2-0 on Saturday for the Wild’s season-high fifth straight victory.
“He was really on his game. He’s been on his game. He’s one of the top goalies in the league, for sure,” Suter said, adding: “You make a mistake, and he’s there to shut the door.”
Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon scored for Minnesota, and Mikko Koivu also had two assists. The Wild are 14-5-1 in their last 20 games, and they have won each game of their streak by at least two goals. Until now, they had never won more than three straight by that margin.
“I feel good. I think the whole team feels good. It’s the whole unit. Six guys out there working together doing all the details right,” Backstrom said. “That helps so much when you have everyone playing the same way, and for sure for a goalie that’s huge to get the help that I get every night.”
Backstrom swatted aside Andrew Desjardins’ penalty shot barely 3 minutes into the game. The 35-year-old goalie is 13-3-1 in his last 17 games, giving up two goals or fewer in 13 of those turns.
“That could’ve easily shifted the game in the other direction,” Parise said.
The Sharks outshot the Wild 19-5 in the third period, but Backstrom didn’t budge.
“When you see him playing like that, it’s a confident feeling on the bench,” coach Mike Yeo said. “They had some good chances.”
With backup Josh Harding on the injured list while he is adjusting to medication for multiple sclerosis, Backstrom has been a stalwart for the Wild in this lockout-condensed season. He has started 14 of their last 15 games. Since a win over Nashville on Feb. 9, Backstrom leads the NHL in wins.
“There’s 30 teams and not a lot of goalie spots, so if you’re in the league you’re going to be a pretty good goalie,” said Sharks defenceman-turned-forward Brent Burns. “He’s obviously playing great this year.”
Burns gave his former team an extended man-advantage with a 4-minute, high-sticking penalty in the first period, and the Wild only managed one shot. But then their power play cranked up.
With 7:50 left in the middle frame, as an interference penalty on former Wild first-round draft pick James Sheppard expired, Parise grabbed a slick feed through the slot by Koivu and sent a wrist shot into the top corner of the net that grazed the crossbar as it went in, giving the Wild the first goal for the ninth time in 10 games.
“I think whoever scored the first goal was probably going to win that game,” Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. “We had some good chances and just couldn’t get it in. Special teams are going to win you games right now.”
When Dan Boyle was called for tripping as the second period ended, the Wild started the final period with a 5-on-4, and Suter set up Spurgeon for a slap shot that stretched the lead to two. Suter has two goals and 15 assists in his last 13 games, giving him a team-high 26 points.
The Sharks won their first seven games, but since then they’ve been unable to stay in a groove. They fell to 2-5-2 in their last nine, with games on Monday and Wednesday against mighty Anaheim coming next.
“It’s make or break time right now. It’s not like we have a half-season to go here,” centre Logan Couture said. “There have been a lot of things that didn’t go the way we wanted to this year. Winning on the road is one of them.”
With Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi and Torrey Mitchell, the Wild have a strong Sam Jose presence, thanks to three separate trades the teams made two summers ago. They also have rookie Charlie Coyle on their first line, a significant part of their return for dealing Burns on draft day in 2011.
Sheppard and Martin Havlat are the former Wild skaters now with the Sharks, and while there are still plenty of games and seasons left to change direction, for now the Wild appear to have gotten the better of the Sharks in their swaps.
NOTES: The game was played in the afternoon, with the Western Collegiate Hockey Association championship here at night between Colorado College and Wisconsin. The Wild have three former Badgers with Suter, Heatley and Tom Gilbert. The Sharks have two, Joe Pavelski and Adam Burish. … The Wild are 12-4 this season when scoring first and 12-1-1 when leading after two periods. … Parise ended a five-game streak without a goal, his longest skid of the season. … The announced attendance was 19,358, the second-largest, regular-season crowd in Wild history. … Sharks LW Ryane Clowe missed his third straight game with a shoulder injury.