ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Wild found some relief and satisfaction after their first game of the new year. The Buffalo Sabres were the perfect tonic.
Jason Pominville scored against his old team, and the Wild beat the Sabres 4-1 on Thursday night to stop a franchise-record streak of six straight losses in regulation.
Re-establishing their style and regaining the ground they lost will take some time, but for the Wild this was a strong start.
“I can’t express how good it feels to get that monkey off our back,” defenceman Clayton Stoner said.
Marco Scandella scored, just 106 seconds before Pominville. Jason Zucker had the third goal in the second period against Ryan Miller, one of the three goalies recently picked for the U.S. Olympic team.
“Ryan’s been playing really good, and we didn’t give him an effort in front of him,” captain Steve Ott said.
The Wild sure weren’t feeling sorry for anyone. They won for the first time since Dec. 17, and Niklas Backstrom picked up a victory for the first time in his last nine starts since Nov. 23. With Josh Harding sitting out with an illness, Backstrom stopped 19 shots.
“That’s something we have to build on,” Backstrom said. “I think that’s the first step.”
Miller made 28 saves, not nearly enough for a Sabres team with by far the worst record and fewest goals in the NHL. They were nearly shut out for the second straight game, following a 3-0 loss at Winnipeg on Tuesday, but Matt Ellis knocked in a loose puck in front of the net with 1:12 left.
“I think teams see what we have to offer, adjust, and we don’t make any adjustments,” Miller said. “We have to be adaptable.”
The Wild entered the night with the second-lowest scoring average in the league, so naturally the first goal came more than 24 1/2 minutes into the game. Scandella flashed a big smile after he beat defenceman Christian Ehrhoff to the slot and turned a pass from Matt Cooke into his first goal in 13 games.
Then Pominville, who had the game-winner in October when these teams met in Buffalo, scored against his former teammate by using a snap shot to sneak the puck between Miller’s glove and the post.
Zucker, playing on an all-21-year-old second line with Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund, stretched the lead to 3-0 with his first goal of the season. He was recalled on Wednesday from Iowa of the AHL for the fourth time since Nov. 20.
“We didn’t do anything special, but we did all the little things right,” Pominville said.
Ten Wild players had points, including two assists each for Ryan Suter and Mikko Koivu, after coach Mike Yeo shook up his lineup yet again. Suter and Jonas Brodin were split up on defence, too. Even Kyle Brodziak scored, for the first time in 31 games since Oct. 26. He was awarded the goal with 26 seconds left when he was tripped just past the blue line with an empty net in front of him.
Yeo praised Koivu, Pominville and new linemate Dany Heatley for their leadership.
“If they had a tough shift, they got right back to it, got it right the next shift,” Yeo said. “They play an important role on our team. We need them to continue to go out and perform.”
Yeo’s job has been put in jeopardy by the skid that began around Thanksgiving and kept up all the way through New Year’s Eve. The Wild improved to 6-12-1 in their last 19 games with their first regulation win in 11 games since Dec. 8.
The Sabres already fired their coach, replacing Ron Rolston with Ted Nolan on Nov. 13. The results haven’t been much better, though. They fell to 0-9-2 in their last 11 road games and have only one regulation win away from Buffalo all season. This might’ve been their worst game under Nolan.
“If it wasn’t it had to be pretty close. It’s just one of those things where when we’re bad, we’re bad,” Nolan said.
NOTES: The Sabres lost here for the first time in four games since Dec. 13, 2003. They’re 5-2 at Xcel Energy Center since it opened. … Wild D Keith Ballard was a healthy scratch for the first time this season. … Sabres RW Drew Stafford left the game with an upper-body injury. LW Ville Leino was scratched because of a lower-body injury. … The Sabreshave not gone without a goal in consecutive games since Oct. 9 and 11, 2003.