VANCOUVER – Thanks to considerable help from Niklas Backstrom, the new-look Minnesota Wild continue to show that they’re for real.
Backstrom made 35 saves as Minnesota took sole possession of the Northwest Division lead by defeating the Vancouver Canucks 3-1 on Monday night.
“It was a big challenge for us, and I think we played as a team and played a great game,” said Backstrom after his eighth-straight start. “They came on, especially in the second, but we battled that and scored a big goal there and then got a couple goals in the third.”
Charlie Coyle’s goal early in the third period broke a 1-1 tie while Jonas Brodin and Matt Cullen also scored for the Wild (16-10-2), who moved two points ahead of Vancouver for first place in the Northwest. It was Minnesota’s eighth win in 11 games.
But the Wild had struggled in Vancouver for more than three years. The victory was the Wild’s first in the Canucks’ unfriendly confines since Jan. 31, 2009, ending an 11-game winless skid.
“I knew we haven’t won in some games,” said Backstrom. “But they played some pretty good games here and they got more than we got. Even last time we played here (this season), I think we had a great third period in (the second game in) a back-to-back.”
Henrik Sedin replied for the Canucks (13-9-6), who suffered their second straight loss and 11th in 16 games.
Backstrom faced uncertainty because he is playing on the final year of a four-year, $24-million deal. Meanwhile, No. 2 netminder Josh Harding had signed a three-year, $5.7-million deal.
But Harding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November during the NHL lockout and requested time off in February as he struggled to manage his medication. With Harding still out, Backstrom’s workload has intensified.
“It’s not something I think about,” said Backstrom, who is trying to offset fatigue by eating right and getting plenty of rest. “For me, it’s just the next game and practice (and) next game. You go small steps at a time.”
The Wild are trying to do likewise as they introduce high-priced stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter into their lineup along with youngsters and other newcomers. The win bolstered their hopes of qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.
But the low-key Backstrom refused to get too excited about the win.
“We’re not a playoff team yet,” said Backstrom. “We want to be a playoff team. We can’t look too far ahead. We can’t keep watching in the standings what other teams are doing. For us, it’s just to play the right way night in and night out.”
However, Minnesota secon-year coach Mike Yeo was feeling pumped after the “big” win in Vancouver for the first time under his guidance. In addition to crediting Backstrom for an “outstanding” effort, he praised rookies Coyle, 21, and Brodin, 19.
“There’s a reason why they’re on our team, and they’re showing it,” said Yeo.
“Those guys are really good,” added Cullen. “They are playing big, important minutes and I can’t say enough about how well and how mature they have played.”
After a scoreless first period, Sedin finally turned the red light on during a power play midway through the second as he put in Jason Garrison’s rebound.
The goal ended Vancouver’s power-play drought after 36 unsuccessful man-advantage opportunities dating to Feb. 21 against Dallas.
However, Brodin, the NHL’s youngest defenceman at 19 years and eight months, created a 1-1 tie just under five minutes later on a slapshot from the point during a Minnesota power play.
Coyle gave the Wild a 2-1 lead at 3:20 of the third period as he deflected Clayton Stoner’s point shot in off the crossbar.
Cullen increased Minnesota’s lead to 3-1 about six minutes later as he converted on a give-and-go against Chris Tanev after the Canuck’s defensive partner Keith Ballard got caught up ice and could not get back into position in time. The goal ended Cullen’s scoreless skid at 11 games.
“We had some real solid scoring chances,” said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault. “We forced their goaltender to make some good saves.”
Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo was solid while making his fourth straight start, despite being in net for Vancouver’s 5-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday.
But the Wild managed to beat him after he had shut out Minnesota in three of his last four home starts.
Wild captain Mikko Koivu says his team, which struggled early in the season, just needed time to learn the Wild system and come together.
“I think we’ve been for real from day one this year,” said Koivu. “It was just ups and downs. It’s not easy to just click a notch and move and go win all these games.
“You’ve gotta build.”
Notes: Canucks trainer Mike Burnstein worked his 1,500th game. “Keep it going—keep (players) going,” said Canucks coach Alain Vigneault in a pre-recorded video tribute. … The Canucks recalled Jordan Schroeder from Chicago of the AHL earlier Monday to replace David Booth, who suffered a leg injury against Detroit. Schroeder, Vancouver’s first choice (22nd overall in 2009), skated on the fourth line. … Vancouver defenceman Keith Ballard, a Baudette, Minn., native returned to the lineup after sitting out the previous three games as a healthy scratch. He replaced Andrew Alberts, a Minneapolis native, who was scratched.