Well, the stern coach has been finding his approval easier and easier to give.
Third-string goalie Josh Harding turned in another strong performance to help the Wild beat the Los Angeles Kings 4-1 on Saturday night and stretch their franchise-best winning streak to nine games.
“I don’t count that,” Lemaire said, cracking his familiar wry smile when asked about the streak.
For Lemaire, success has always been measured by consistent, well-rounded play and maximum effort. The bonus? Minnesota sneaked past idle Vancouver into first place in the Northwest Division, though the Canucks have played two fewer games. With 97 points, the Wild established a franchise record and reached the fourth-highest total in the conference.
Brian Rolston got his team-leading 31st goal after Brent Burns scored in the first period, but before Mikko Koivu’s late goal Los Angeles controlled the flow while Minnesota’s skaters slowed and were bogged down by penalties.
There is always more that can be done, as anyone who has ever played for Lemaire will attest.
“The way you play the first, second and third period, I think that’s more important than where we are in the standings,” Koivu said.
Dustin Brown scored for the Kings, who have been eliminated from the playoff chase, but entered the game having gone 4-1-1 in their previous six games. Goalie Mathieu Garon had a four-game winning streak end. He made 19 saves in a game full of yapping, scrapping and a late fight between each team’s specialist – Derek Boogaard for Minnesota and Raitis Ivanans for Los Angeles.
“I thought we generated a lot,” coach Marc Crawford said. “The difference in the game was their goalie was better than ours. He preserved a victory for them.”
Harding, making his third start this season while Niklas Backstrom got a break, filled in seamlessly once again and improved to 3-0-1 since his promotion from the minors when original starter Manny Fernandez first sprained his left knee. In 225 minutes, Harding has given up only three goals. He made 32 saves against the Kings and was especially stout in the second period – coming up with several close saves with his team struggling.
The Wild were outshot 9-3 in the second period.
“They could have come back at any time,” Lemaire said.
The 22-year-old Harding didn’t let that happen, even though he acknowledged continued anxiety about taking the ice in the NHL.
“The nerves are still there. The net’s shaking,” he said.
Early in the third, Brown took a drop pass from Anze Kopitar and scored 14 seconds in as a power play neared expiration to make it 2-1.
Minnesota pushed back 6½ minutes later when Todd White controlled a faceoff in the opponent’s zone – a weakness for the Wild this season – and sent the puck in perfect position for Pierre-Marc Bouchard to wind up and shoot past Garon for a 3-1 lead.
“When you play a quality team like this you can’t afford to make any mistakes,” said Los Angeles rookie Patrick O’Sullivan. “The second period was good for us. We really tried to keep the puck down low, cycle, and get some shots. Harding was really good. He made the saves. That second period, I thought we’d score a couple of goals for sure.”
Notes: Defenceman Rob Blake, whose free-agent signing headlined an active off-season for the Kings, has a minus-25 rating for the team that has given up the second-most goals in the league. Blake, who was scratched because of a strained neck that occurred in the first period of Friday night’s win at Chicago, is day-to-day. … Minnesota also established a franchise record by winning its 26th home game. The Wild are 26-6-4 at Xcel Energy Center. … Brown’s goal snapped an 0-for-17 streak by Los Angeles against Minnesota this season on the power play. … O’Sullivan, who had at least one point in his seven previous games, was sent to the Kings last summer in the draft-day trade for Pavol Demitra.