ST. PAUL, Minn. – Guillaume Latendresse hasn’t been with the Minnesota Wild long enough for most of their fans to even memorize the spelling of his name.
In a short time with his new team, though, Latendresse has given the Wild all they could hope for.
Latendresse scored the go-ahead goal midway through the third period after getting a career-high three assists, giving the Wild enough to beat Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3 on Monday.
“He gives us a lift when we need it,” said teammate Cal Clutterbuck. “He’s really good down low at chewing up the block in the offensive zone, and he’s been huge for us.”
For a bigger forward, though, Latendresse has shown better-than-advertised skating ability. He back-checked well and drew raves from coach Todd Richards for smart, tough plays along the boards.
“His play is elevated, and you can see that he’s real confident,” Richards said, adding: “If he gets a step on you, you’re beat. There’s nothing you can do to stop him.”
An audible scattering of Sid the Kid supporters were in attendance to cheer for the defending Stanley Cup champions among the fifth-largest regular-season crowd in Wild history. But Latendresse upstaged the NHL’s brightest young star for a night at least, even with Crosby getting two goals and an assist.
In the 2003 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft, before they became pros, Crosby was the No. 1 pick and Latendresse went No. 2.
“Now I’m 600,” Latendresse joked.
Latendresse, who came from Montreal for Benoit Pouliot in a trade of underperforming young players two months ago, sneaked in behind Alex Goligoski during a 2-on-3 rush while Kyle Brodziak drew his defender out. Latendresse, who has 10 goals and five assists in 20 games with Minnesota, was in position to punch in the winner.
He has given the Wild a finisher at the net to play with newcomer Martin Havlat, who got just his eighth goal when Latendresse set him up in the second period to tie the game 2-2.
“It’s great for me to have the chance to play on a team like that,” Latendresse said. “The chemistry’s great. I like everything here.”
For only the fifth time in 22 games this season, the Penguins lost after scoring first, this time on Crosby’s early goal. He later tied the game 3-3 in the first minute of the third period to move past Marian Gaborik for second place in the NHL with 29 goals.
Former Wild forward Pascal Dupuis set up Crosby’s first score and added a goal of his own for Pittsburgh, which again struggled on the power play and had another quiet game from struggling star Evgeni Malkin.
The Penguins went 0-for-6 in extra-skater situations, and Malkin was a minus-2 with three shots on goal and two giveaways. He is scoreless in 12 of his last 13 games, with a three-goal game against Ottawa on Dec. 23 standing out in the slump.
“We got in the offensive zone and forced them to take penalties,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “We came out in the third down a goal and got a goal to get back into it. That’s how you want to play.”
“If we play another three games, plus another 33 games like that, we’ll be a good team.”
The Penguins killed off a five-minute power play after a major interference penalty on Sergei Gonchar for clobbering Clutterbuck, but they weren’t able to break through down the stretch.
Niklas Backstrom made 35 saves after making 34 in Minnesota’s 2-1 win at Pittsburgh in October. The Penguins, playing the second on a five-game road trip, have lost eight of their last 11 games.
“We just need to settle things down,” Crosby said, assessing the power play. “We made it pretty tough on ourselves.”
Backstrom squelched a 5-on-3 in the second period, whirling backward to pounce on and freeze the puck that slid out of his grasp on a slap shot by Gonchar.
Seconds after another power play failed that period, Latendresse – who served a too-many-men penalty – joined the rush and made a deft inside pivot on Goligoski to manoeuvre a shot around him that Clutterbuck tipped past Fleury’s glove for a 3-2 lead.
This is part of the challenge of being the defending champs.
“We’re getting every team’s best, every player’s best,” Goligoski said. “Tonight just comes with the territory.”
NOTES: Over the last month, Latendresse leads the NHL with eight even-strength goals. He has four goals and four assists in the last four games. … Goligoski, a native of the northern Minnesota town of Grand Rapids, played in his home state for the first time in his NHL career. … Clutterbuck on Gonchar: “He better hope he retires before the end of the year. Someone’s going to hurt him.”