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Branko Radivojevic scores game-winner as Wild edge Canucks 2-1

VANCOUVER - When you think of a goalie who can make a difference in an NHL game at GM Place, all-star Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks comes readily to mind.

But Friday night was Niklas Backstrom's time in the spotlight as he stopped all but one of 31 shots to lead the Minnesota Wild to a 2-1 victory that strengthened their hold on first place in the ultra-tight Northwest Division.

"He's been more solid lately," said Wild coach Jacques Lemaire. "The last five games he's been really good, he's been making the difference."

"It's great when you have a goaltender that makes the big saves at the right time and keeps your team in the game and he's been doing this."

Backstrom was particularly larcenous in the second and third periods when the Canucks outshot Minnesota by a combined 22-10.

His best save came after Branko Radivojevic had given the Wild a 2-0 lead. Canuck Brendan Morrison almost finished a three-way passing play but Backstrom got a pad on his shot.

"I thought our goaltender played a huge role in tonight's game," said Brian Rolston who scored the game's first goal on a power play early in the second period.

"Our defence did a terrific job not letting that second and third shot come in."

The only Canuck to solve Backstrom was Sami Salo who beat him with a point blast that was screened by teammate Taylor Pyatt.

Minnesota moved three points ahead of the Canucks by winning in Vancouver for the third straight time to improve to 40-26-9.

The Canucks had a three-game win streak snapped and slipped to 38-27-10. They remained tied with the idle Calgary Flames for seventh place in the Western Conference.

Vancouver also missed a chance to add to a six-point cushion on the ninth-place Nashville Predators who still have hopes of clinching a playoff berth.

The Canucks, who swarmed Backstrom with Luongo lifted for a sixth attacker in the final minute, also had some good early chances.

Alex Burrows missed on a tip-in attempt on an open net and Backstrom was equal to a point-blank shot by Canuck forward Ryan Shannon.

The Finnish netminder beat Shannon again late in the second period when he gloved a goalmouth pass before the speedy forward could tip it past him.

"We gave ourselves a chance to win, but we didn't pull it out," Morrison said.

The Canucks also took several momentum-killing penalties.

"We took too many trips to the box," Morrison said. "There were a couple of questionable calls, but you've got to live with them and move on."

Backstrom could concentrate on making the first save as he was helped by a defence playing its first game without Kurtis Foster who suffered a broken leg Wednesday in a shootout loss in San Jose.

"Our (defence) has been really strong in front of the net helping the goalies to see the first puck," said Backstrom who has only one regulation loss in his last 11 starts.

"And if you leave a rebound there, they'll get it out so it makes the game easier for the goalie when you can trust your D and you know what they're doing."

"You just have to focus to get the first puck and you know that you will get help on the second one."

Rolston scored the crucial first goal when his shot bounced off defenceman Willie Mitchell's hip and went in off the far post.

"It was going probably two feet wide and it went off Willie so it was a nice break," Rolston said of his third goal in six games and 28th of the season.

Radivojevic went to the net to tip a pass that Pavol Demitra threaded through Salo and past Luongo. Demitra also assisted on Rolston's goal.

Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said his club easily matched the Wild for scoring chances.

"They've got some good offensive potential on that team and they clearly didn't have more chances to score than we did," Vigneault said.

"Give credit to their goaltender. He played a pretty solid game tonight."

NOTES:The Wild decided not to call anyone up from AHL Houston after Foster's injury ... Lemaire said he expects frequent scratch Sean Hill and ex-Canuck Keith Carney to play additional minutes ... Luongo, who rarely takes a day off, even for practice, got his 23rd consecutive start ... the Canucks close out the road portion of the regular season Tuesday (Calgary), Wednesday (Colorado) and Friday (Minneosta) ... they finish with four games in seven nights at home.



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