ST. PAUL, Minn. – Niklas Backstrom has been on the short end of more shootouts than not, one blemish on an otherwise-stellar record for the Minnesota Wild goalie since he joined the team five years ago.
After watching Nikolai Khabibulin turn away shot after shot in regulation on the other end, Backstrom stepped up and refused to lose this one.
Devin Setoguchi scored in the fourth round of the shootout, spoiling a strong night by Khabibulin for the Oilers and sending the Wild to a 2-1 victory Thursday.
“I was really happy for him,” said coach Mike Yeo, who walked to the end of the bench and patted Backstrom on the back before the shootout began.
“It looked like he said, ‘You’re not beating me. You’re not beating me this time.'”
Backstrom gave up a goal in the first round to Jordan Eberle before stopping three straight attempts to seal the win. After dropping a shootout decision at Ottawa on Tuesday, Backstrom improved his career record in those situations to 13-25. He’s 2-9 in his last 11 shootouts.
But the stone-faced Finn brushed off the significance the same way he did those pucks during the game.
“To be honest, when I go to the game I don’t think about the shootout. I think about 60 minutes. That’s the only thing that matters to us,” he said.
Khabibulin was nearly impenetrable, standing firm during a third period in which the Wild outshot the Oilers 14-1. Matt Cullen, who had the only goal for Minnesota in regulation, scored first in the shootout before Khabibulin denied the next two shooters.
Ryan Smyth had the goal for the Oilers, who have lost 17 straight games to the Wild at Xcel Energy Center. This was just the third time during that streak they gained a standings point by taking the Wild to overtime. They lost all six meetings to Minnesota last season, getting outscored 23-9.
“I thought tonight was the night, but I guess we have to wait until next time,” Khabibulin said.
After converting only one of nine power plays on their two-game road trip this week, the Wild went 0 for 3 in regulation and had a prime 4-on-3 chance in overtime after Taylor Hall’s hooking penalty.
But Khabibulin wouldn’t budge. He made 34 saves.
“Awesome. He gave us a chance to win,” Smyth said.
The Oilers showed off their speed in the first period, controlling the pace of play and taking the lead halfway into the opening frame when Smyth camped out in the crease and pivoted to backhand a rebound of Eric Belanger’s shot that brushed the post and sneaked in.
The Wild woke up, though, and used an effective, aggressive forecheck to keep the pressure on Edmonton’s defence, an attack that continued through to the end of the game.
The only thing missing were the goals.
It took a nifty 2-on-1 move by Cullen midway through the second period to tie the game. He faked a pass to Guillaume Latendresse in the slot, and defenceman Tom Gilbert went with it, curling back toward Latendresse. That gave Cullen an opening, and he went high for his third goal in four games this season.
But other than that, the 38-year-old “Bulin Wall” was on his game. He denied Setoguchi in the second period and Marco Scandella in overtime, both on breakaways. The Wild, though, insisted they weren’t frustrated.
“It’s kind of positive affirmation, I guess, that you’re doing the right things and that our game can be really good,” Cullen said. “Anytime we’ve done that so far in this young season we’ve been really effective, and it’s a confidence booster for us.”
Yeo said he sensed on the bench that the Wild believed they would win.
“That’s the way we want to play the game. I’d like to think their ‘D’ are pretty tired right now,” he said.
Injuries and inexperience kept the Oilers at the bottom of the NHL both of the last two years, but this budding team—the last playoff appearance was the 2006 Stanley Cup finals—has finished the reconstruction project with consecutive first overall draft picks of Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Nugent-Hopkins had a goal in the home opener, a shootout win over Pittsburgh, and the two young stars are playing together on a promising line. The third member of that group is Ales Hemsky, who left with a sore shoulder after playing 5 1/2 minutes in the first period. His absence affected their rhythm.
“He was really flying around early,” coach Tom Renney said. “That whole line was buzzing. He was really good tonight, and it’s unfortunate he got hurt. The game was definitely different when he left.”
The Oilers have some important players hurt, including ankle injuries to centre Sam Gagner and defenceman Ryan Whitney. But with Smyth, their popular former captain who was acquired during the summer in a trade with Los Angeles, back on the roster they seem to have a little more confidence.
“The more we keep playing and the more experience we get, we’ll come through in these tight games,” Khabibulin said.
NOTES: The Oilers and Wild play six times this season, all before New Year’s Eve. … Cullen had 12 goals last season, none in the final 24 games. … Backstrom is 19-2-1 in his career against the Oilers, including 15-0 at home. … The last time the Oilers won at Minnesota was Jan. 16, 2007.