ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Wild hope they’ve toughened up enough for the playoffs. The other parts of their game are working well, too.
Cocking their fists and firing away on the power play, the Wild surged past the slumping Vancouver Canucks with a 4-0 victory on Friday night.
The Wild can clinch a spot in the post-season with one more win, but they’re chasing more than that. They stretched their lead in the Northwest Division to three points over idle Calgary, which has five games remaining to Minnesota’s three.
“The end is coming, and we need the guys to be at their best,” coach Jacques Lemaire said.
Niklas Backstrom sure was. He posted his fourth shutout of the season – two came in the first three games – and set a franchise record with his 31st victory.
“I feel OK out there, but it goes with the team,” Backstrom said. “When you know the team is playing well, then it’s easier for everybody.”
Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Brent Burns scored with the Wild a man up, sending the Canucks to their fourth straight loss and a tie for eighth place in the Western Conference with Nashville.
Ryan Kesler was asked if there was enough resolve on the roster to win out.
“Yeah, of course,” the centre said. “There’s a lot of character in this room. Right now we’re going through a little adversity, but that’s when we’re at our best.”
Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo was pulled for the second straight game, after giving up two goals in each of the first two periods. Luongo, who came from Florida on an early-morning flight after his wife gave birth to their first child, has given up nine goals in two games – in a total of 45 minutes. Luongo entered the night ranked fourth in the NHL with a .921 save percentage.
Canucks captain Markus Naslund couldn’t blame him.
“The guys in front of him have to play better in every area,” Naslund said. “He’s been there for us all year, and if it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t be where we are. It’s up to us to play hard for him.”
Missing centre and alternate captain Brendan Morrison, who sustained a season-ending knee injury Wednesday in Colorado, the Canucks were overwhelmed. The Wild were sharp from start to finish, though when they went up by four goals they skated without discipline and started trying to score more in the second.
Lemaire was relieved they emerged from that stretch unscathed. Vancouver never took advantage.
“I know the guys were ready and they wanted to play a good game,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “Obviously, it didn’t show on the ice there. That being said, we made a couple of mistakes that they made us pay for. Our power play didn’t capitalize, and when they did make mistakes 5-on-5 their goaltender came up big for them.”
Bouchard’s slap shot squeezed past a screening Aaron Voros and soared high over Luongo’s stick midway through the first period, and an unmarked Burns scored on a blistering slap shot from the high slot to make it 3-0 halfway through the middle frame. Lemaire was delighted by the way Burns moved around with the Wild on the man advantage.
Just 8 seconds after a power play expired, Mikko Koivu made a nifty move from behind the end line to fake former teammate Willie Mitchell and poke the puck past Luongo for the second goal. The puck was in the Canucks zone for the entire advantage.
Todd Fedoruk, one of the tough guys the Wild are hoping can give them some more tenacity for the playoffs, scored off Marian Gaborik’s 40th assist to make it 4-0. Fedoruk, Chris Simon and Derek Boogaard have given Minnesota a more physical presence.
In the third period, all 10 skaters on the ice wound up dropping their gloves and sticks in a wild melee after Alex Burrows and Bouchard started mixing it up. Nine penalties were issued.
“We play that team and we stick up for each other,” Bouchard said.
Notes: Wild D Kurtis Foster, who broke his left leg last week, flew back to the Twin Cities to continue his hospital stay and physical therapy. There is no timetable for his discharge, but the team wanted its physician to be able to evaluate him. … In the previous 10 games, Vancouver killed 39 of 44 penalties – 88.6 per cent. … Colton Gillies, Minnesota’s most recent first-round draft pick, signed a multiyear contract with the club that begins next season. The 19-year-old centre has been playing at the junior level in the WHL. He’ll finish the season in the AHL. … Mitchell was on the ice for all four goals.