VANCOUVER – Minnesota coach Jacques Lemaire will probably have nightmares about his team’s third period on Thursday, but he’ll sleep better knowing they almost always get the job done in a one-goal game.
The Wild, usually a certainty to win when leading after two periods, squandered a pair of third-period leads but won Thursday’s key Northwest Division match-up 5-4 thanks to Mikko Koivu’s shootout winner.
It was Minnesota’s league-leading 17th one-goal victory.
“It wasn’t the third period I thought we were going to have,” Lemaire said. “But our games are always close. In a way it’s not bad because if we ever make the playoffs they’re close games and our players will be used to playing under pressure all the time.”
Koivu was the one under pressure in the shootout. With the shootout score tied 1-1 on goals from Minnesota’s Brent Burns and Vancouver’s Trevor Linden, Koivu calmly skated in, faked goaltender Roberto Luongo and roofed a backhand into the net.
It improved Minnesota’s record in shootouts to 3-3 and left them with a 2-1 record on their three-game road trip.
“I think both teams played a good game,” Koivu said. “We had the lead and they got the lead and that’s what made it a good game for the fans. But it’s a good sign for us when you’re down and come back, especially on the road. It’s not that easy and it’s a good sign for this team.”
The victory pushed the Wild (33-21-4) six points ahead of rival Vancouver in the battle for first place atop the division.
Although the Canucks (28-22-8) came back from 2-1 and 4-3 third-period deficits, they squandered an opportunity to move into a tie with Colorado for the eighth and final playoff position in the Western Conference. The Avalanche were 4-1 losers on Thursday.
“It was a big game for us,” said Canuck forward Brad Isbister, who opened scoring for Vancouver in the second period. “We’re disappointed (not to win), but we played a good third period. It was nice to see pucks actually go in.
Stephane Veilleux scored twice for the Wild, while Marian Gaborik and Kurtis Foster also scored.
Rookie defenceman Alexander Edler had a pair of goals for the Canucks, including the game-tying goal with less than three minutes to play.
Ryan Kesler had the other Vancouver goal.
Minnesota led 2-1 entering the third period, surrendered two quick goals, scored two quick goals and then allowed Edler to tie the game 4-4.
After centre Henrik Sedin won the draw, Edler stepped up and wristed a shot past startled Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom.
The goal sent the sellout GM Place crowd of 18,630 bonkers.
Losing a lead isn’t territory Minnesota is familiar with.
“A lot of people have talked about that lately and usually the third period is our strength, we know how to play and what to do with the puck in the third,” Backstrom said. “But we came back. You know we had a good road trip and can head home with a good feeling.”
Prior to Edler’s heroics, the building was silent as Foster and Gaborik had given Minnesota the lead.
Foster made it 3-3 at 9:56 when his slapshot from the point hit a stick and eluded Luongo.
Gaborik scored a beautiful goal to give Minnesota the lead two and a half minutes later, deking Canucks defenceman Willie Mitchell, who was playing his first game after missing 10 contests with a fractured vertebrae, and snapping a shot past Luongo’s blocker.
It was Gaborik’s 30th of the season.
Earlier in the third period, Kesler and Edler had given the Canucks a 3-2 lead with goals 16 seconds apart.
Kesler knotted the score two minutes into the period, taking a feed from Ryan Shannon and ripping a wrist shot over goaltender Backstrom’s glove. The tally came right as Burns’ roughing penalty expired. Burns had been whistled for roughing with time expired in the second period.
“That changed the whole game,” Lemaire said of Burns’ infraction. “We’re leading by a goal and then we get a penalty at the end of the period and they score.”
Sixteen seconds after Kesler’s goal, Edler gave the Canucks their first and only lead when his slapshot from the high slot trickled over Backstrom’s glove.
The Wild led 2-1 after 40 minutes thanks to grinder Veilleux, who snapped a 33-game goalless drought with a pair of goals.
He opened scoring in the first period by outwaiting Luongo and backhanding the puck into the open cage, then made it 2-0 in the second frame when Branko Radivojevic’s shot from behind the goal-line hit Veilleux’s skate and bounced in.
“We need everyone contributing – that’s how we’re going to stay up in the standings,” Veilleux said.
Isbister scored a similar goal for Vancouver midway through the second period, when Alex Burrows’ shot hit his skate and banked past Backstrom.
NOTES: The Canucks honoured equipment manager Pat O’Neill prior to the game for working his 2,000th NHL game. It took O’Neill 27 years to accomplish the feat. … Vancouver defenceman Nathan McIver earned the decision over Aaron Voros in a first-period bout. … Canucks pest Alex Burrows earned an instigator penalty when he dropped the gloves with Brian Rolston after Rolston hit Mitchell from behind late in the second period.