ST. PAUL, Minn. – Forget those nerve-racking final six minutes for now.
The Minnesota Wild were just happy with a productive performance during the first 54.
Cal Clutterbuck’s first two NHL goals gave the Wild a badly needed offensive boost that was strong enough to withstand three late scores by the injury-depleted and travel-weary Washington Capitals in a 4-3 victory Monday night.
“We’ve got confidence in our group here,” Clutterbuck said, denying any worry on the Wild bench.
Marek Zidlicky’s 5-on-3 slap shot, following consecutive closing-hand-on-the-puck penalties called 26 seconds apart on the Capitals’ Tom Poti and Alex Ovechkin, zipped past goalie Jose Theodore early in the third period for a 3-0 advantage.
James Sheppard broke a 48-game goal drought four minutes later, inspiring a brief “Sieve! Sieve! Sieve!” chant from the crowd.
But Niklas Backstrom and the normally sound Wild defence – they lead the league in goals-against average – unravelled down the stretch and gave up goals to Matt Bradley, Ovechkin and the other Nicklas Backstrom.
With 1:44 left, the lead was whittled to one.
“They made it a game. You see the talent they have, and how good they can be,” Clutterbuck said.
Backstrom’s score against his namesake and natural Scandinavian rival gave him 16 points in his last nine games. He’s from Sweden, and Minnesota’s goalie is a native of Finland. Ovechkin, who has 20 points in his last 10 games, led the late surge by the Capitals and let one fly from the top of the circle with 3:53 left that cut the lead to two.
“Of course we still had a chance, but I think we woke up a little too late,” Ovechkin said.
Ovechkin and Backstrom ranked first and second in the NHL in scoring for the month of November at the end of the weekend.
“This is an explosive team,” Wild coach Jacques Lemaire said. “If you give them a little life, they’re coming, they’re coming.”
Scoring has been harder to come by for Minnesota, the third-worst offensive team in the league with 45 goals coming into the game. After losing 3-2 to Vancouver and 2-1 to St. Louis, both against ordinary goalies to begin this five-game homestand, Lemaire called his team out for not working hard enough up front.
Clutterbuck, playing on the grind-it-out fourth line with bully Derek Boogaard, accepted the challenge. The rookie snagged a loose puck in the slot – after a big hit by Boogaard behind the net knocked it away from the Caps – and sent it high over Theodore’s stick for a 1-0 lead in the first period. Clutterbuck muscled his way through the middle, pivoted and poked in a backhanded rebound for his second goal, in the second.
“This kid, we don’t look at him to be a steady player on our team at the start,” Lemaire said. “He works so hard, and look where he is now.”
Clutterbuck’s before-practice shooting work has made a strong impression on the coaching staff.
“Sometimes you wonder along the way if it’s ever going to come. You’re working hard, and you’re getting chances,” he said. “It’s a great feeling. It motivates you to work even harder.”
Theodore frustrated the Wild last April in their first-round loss to the Colorado Avalanche in the playoffs, but it was the Capitals who were flustered all night until the very end.
Washington was missing star forward Alexander Semin (back), top defenceman Mike Green (shoulder) and veteran centre Sergei Federov (ankle) again, an extra hurdle to clear on this five-game trip on which it gave up 26 goals. The Capitals went 1-3-1 and took home five points, following a five-game winning streak.
Three more players were hurt in this one: defenceman Jeff Schultz (finger) and centre Boyd Gordon (back) in the first period and defenceman John Erskine in the second period, prompting centre Brooks Laich to volunteer for blue-line duty.
“That’s what it came to,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We had the four out there. They were just dying.”
Added Boudreau: “We just have to go back and regroup and get it done. It’s very positive the last six minutes, what you can do when you put your mind to it.”
Notes: The Wild are 5-0 at home against the Capitals in their brief history. … Boudreau said he hoped Gordon would be ready for Wednesday’s game against Atlanta. He wasn’t sure about the others. … The Wild scored once in each period for the second time in 19 games this season. This was their first lead at the first intermission in seven games.