The Ducks sure have the edge, though, after using a dominant, smothering defence and superior special teams to take a 3-0 lead over the Wild in this Western Conference quarter-final. Andy McDonald scored early, Rob Niedermayer scored late, and goalie Ilya Bryzgalov stopped 19 shots to lead Anaheim past Minnesota 2-1 on Sunday night.
“We didn’t give them much,” said Niedermayer, whose goal was his first since Feb. 6. “We didn’t have many turnovers and didn’t give up any odd-man rushes and cycled the puck down low. That’s our game, that’s our strength, and that’s what we have to play to.”
Game 4 will be played here Tuesday night, giving the Wild one last chance to get their power play going. Frustrated all week by Ducks star defencemen Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger and their lesser-known teammates, they went 1-for-5 on the power play and are 1-for-15 in the series.
And that goal, by Petteri Nummelin, didn’t come until 38.2 seconds remained – the only blemish on another strong game by Bryzgalov.
“It’s a credit to our guys who have spent a lot of time working on it, studying them and what they do,” McDonald said. “They’ve been good for us all year, and they showed again tonight we are able to be successful on the penalty kill.”
Anaheim just kept clogging the lanes, Minnesota made questionable decisions and rarely found space to make crisp, clean passes – let alone attempt clear shots. But the Wild, who always stress a defensively sound approach, wished they would have put more pucks on the net.
“Everyone was saying, ‘Shoot the puck! Shoot the puck!’ on the bench and then they went back on the ice and they didn’t shoot it,” coach Jacques Lemaire said. “The guys recognized the mistakes we were making and couldn’t adjust.”
Marian Gaborik, the star of Minnesota’s top line, spoke Saturday about preferring to play against Teemu Selanne’s line and avoid Samuel Pahlsson and the rest of the Ducks’ checkers. But Gaborik and good buddy Pavol Demitra barely generated any chances.
“They’re all over the place. It seems like there were 10 guys with white jerseys on out there tonight,” Gaborik said, later adding: “It seems like there’s no room at all. You get time for a little bit, then they’re right on you. They were just taking away everything.”
Minnesota’s fourth line of Wyatt Smith, Stephane Veilleux and Branko Radivojevic was the only group that consistently came close to scoring until Nummelin connected. Top scorers Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Brian Rolston and Mark Parrish continued to struggle to find a rhythm, and the Wild complained again about the defensive tactics of their opponents.
“The holdups, it’s unbelievable,” Rolston said. “Maybe they’re the best team in the league at holding up. They must be. We have to fight through those things, but it has been frustrating.”
This was the first post-season game at Xcel Energy Center in nearly four years, the last coming on May 12, 2003, when Jean-Sebastien Giguere shut out Minnesota 2-0 in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals.
Giguere won the Conn Smythe Trophy that year as the playoffs MVP, but Bryzgalov, who has given up four goals in three games, has quietly begun a similarly impressive stretch. Giguere hasn’t played since March 31, due to a family problem. His son, Maxime Olivier, was born on April 4 with a deformed right eye.
It sure helps Bryzgalov to have such a strong defence in front of him, though.
“We wanted to come in and get pucks deep, force them to go get it and be physical and play sound defensively,” Pronger said. “We got away from it a little bit in the second, but played a real solid third and played well in front of Bryz. He came up with some huge stops to keep the score where it was.”
Niklas Backstrom made 17 saves for the Wild, but Rob Niedermayer, Scott’s less-decorated brother, led a rush up the right side and zipped a shot over his shoulder for a 2-0 lead with 10:17 left.
With 52 seconds left on a power play in the first period, Pronger put one of his big, long swings on the puck to get it near the net. McDonald corralled it with his stick and flipped it past Backstrom.
Though the score was again close, the Ducks were again in command – leaving Minnesota short on confidence.
Notes: Anaheim defenceman Francois Beauchemin left bloodied in the closing minutes after a slap shot by Parrish hit him in the face. Beauchemin needed stitches on his chin and was taken for precautionary X-rays. … Minnesota fell to 2-7 in the franchise’s brief history in post-season home games. … Ducks right wing Dustin Penner, who left Game 2 with an unspecified leg muscle strain, played 10-plus minutes and recorded one shot on goal.