ST. PAUL, Minn. – With 10 games left in the regular season for the Vancouver Canucks, there’s little danger of falling out of first place.
They’re more concerned about this recent series of uncharacteristic performances. They’re still on solid footing for the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs, but on the ice they’ve been slipping.
Erik Christensen’s power-play goal late in the second period gave goalie Josh Harding and the Minnesota Wild a long-sought victory, 2-0 over the suddenly sputtering Canucks on Monday.
“It’s about playing our game and trusting that our system is going to win us games and not individual efforts. That’s what won us games last year,” said captain Henrik Sedin, who is rarely held without a point against Minnesota.
Kyle Brodziak’s empty-netter gave the Wild even more to smile about, hearing a rare end-of-the-game roar from their fans after this win over the Northwest Division leader and competitor for the NHL’s best record. Minnesota ended a five-game home losing streak.
“They were rockin’. I think they might have still been drunk from St. Patrick’s Day. We build off that emotion, and we knew that we owed it to them to have a good game,” Harding said.
The Canucks are six points behind league leader St. Louis, and they’re 3-5-2 in their last 10 games. Starting a four-game road trip the wrong way, they failed to crash the net with any urgency or consistency and were shut out for the fourth time this season. The first three came in the first 10 games, with the last on Oct. 26.
“We’ve got to muster up a way to find a way to win games,” centre Ryan Kesler said. “If we play the way we can and we get better, we shouldn’t have a problem winning the majority of our games from here on out.”
Harding made 33 saves for his second shutout of the season and his first victory since Jan. 21 over Dallas, thanks in part to 14 blocked shots by his teammates. The Wild, who won in regulation for only the second time in their last 13 games, finally got their 30th win. They were the first team in the NHL to 20 victories, reached more than three months ago.
“No matter what situation we’re in, we want to feel good about the effort we bring,” Brodziak said. “Tonight we can go home feeling good about ourselves.”
These division rivals usually play rough games, and there was after-the-whistle shoving and jawing in each period. Late in the second, Kesler was called for clipping when he charged at Cal Clutterbuck’s legs and sent the Wild right wing tumbling onto his back.
After a roughing call on Vancouver’s Alex Burrows, the Wild finished the middle frame on a power play. Showing crisper puck movement and more aggression than they have in months, they ended a 1 for 23 skid with a much-needed man-advantage goal.
Clutterbuck centred a pass to Brodziak, who sent a blind backhand feed from the crease to a late-breaking Christensen from the right circle. He sneaked the puck into the side of the net, grazing goalie Cory Schneider’s shoulder area as it went in. Christensen, acquired in a February trade, was with the Wild for 17 games before finally scoring. Now he’s got four in the last four games.
Harding didn’t have to make many tough saves, though he snatched a slap shot by Kesler during Vancouver’s only power play with a slick glove save while seated in the butterfly position. The Wild’s penalty kill improved to 8 for 8 over the last five games.
“I think you can count on one hand the number of Grade A scoring chances that we had tonight 5-on-5,” Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. “We did have possession time, but a lot of it was on the outside … not enough on the inside.”
After sending rookie Matt Hackett back to the AHL club in Houston in the morning, the Wild had primary goalie Niklas Backstrom available on the bench for the first time in eight games, his groin injury finally healed enough for competition. This was Harding’s first start in four games since hurting his lower body and being pulled from the game in Phoenix on March 8. He was 0-4-1 in his previous five decisions.
Yeo and his staff made a fair amount of between-periods strategic adjustments, an opportunity he hasn’t had lately because he’s spent so much time playing psychologist with players to try to produce more of an even, focused effort.
“I really believe that a lot of games are won and lost actually before the game begins. We didn’t win the game before the puck was dropped, but we put ourselves in position to,” Yeo said.
NOTES: Canucks LW Mason Raymond, who has only eight goals and eight assists this season, was a surprise healthy scratch for the first time this season.. … Brodziak set a new career high with 39 points. Clutterbuck has points in consecutive games for the first time in more than three months. … Schneider, who made 32 saves, fell to 9-2-1 in his last 12 games since Christmas.