ST. PAUL, Minn. - Strong goaltending has been a hallmark of the Minnesota Wild's nine-season existence.
During this transition to a new coach and a new playing style in front of those nets, the goalie play has dropped off a bit. But at least for the last two games, Josh Harding has been a steady presence.
Harding made 36 saves, and Mikko Koivu had a power-play goal and two assists to help Minnesota beat the St. Louis Blues 4-2 on Sunday - a critical victory for a Wild team trying to climb into the playoff picture.
"We know we have two solid goaltenders, and we know we can rely on them each and every night," Koivu said. "We're trying to make it a little bit easier on them. I think the defence did a very good job."
The offence, too.
Andrew Brunette and Guillaume Latendresse also scored in a three-goal first period for Minnesota, which pulled within a point of 10th-place St. Louis in the Western Conference. The Blues, who pulled goalie Chris Mason for Ty Conklin at the first intermission, began the day five points out of the final playoff spot.
Mason made only four saves before being replaced, with coach Davis Payne desiring a fresh look.
"The other teams around us and in front of us are winning, and this really hurts," said centre Keith Tkachuk, who blamed "dumb breakdowns" for the early deficit: "At this time of year, you can't take a shift off."
Patrik Berglund and Paul Kariya scored for St. Louis, which finished 4-2 on its six-game trip to surge back into contention. The Blues had won seven of their previous eight games.
Harding started his third straight game, in a four-night stretch, with Niklas Backstrom nursing a groin injury. After giving up five goals at Detroit on Thursday night - Harding called his performance "brutal" - the 25-year-old snapped back.
He made 43 saves in a 3-2 win at Buffalo on Friday night and carried that momentum into Sunday, stifling St. Louis until a clearing attempt by the Wild in their own zone bounced off Berglund's shin pad and shot in the goal to cut the lead to 4-1 with 2:51 left in the second period.
That came on a power play, the sixth of the game for the Blues after being denied by the energized Wild on their first five.
"Our power play has almost been our weakest link in a lot of games this year, and it's tough to win games when that's the way things are going," said centre T.J. Oshie.
Harding has been mentioned for the last year or two as a trade possibility, with Backstrom entrenching himself as the regular. Though Harding is only 7-9 this season with a save percentage barely above .900, he has been called on more than the Wild expected in recent months with Backstrom sidelined on separate occasions due to multiple maladies.
"The more you play the more of a rhythm you get into," Harding said. "I know I need to be sharp. If Backy was in there, he'd be doing the same job. I've got big shoes to fill."
Minutes after Kariya scored from the slot early in the third period, Brad Boyes had a chance to pull the Blues within one goal. But Harding made a graceful backhand save with his glove after Boyes had manoeuvred into the slot for a close-range shot.
"He looks relaxed, and he looks big, and he's square to the puck," Wild coach Todd Richards said.
Koivu scored for only the third time in 16 games, giving him 19 goals for the season, to make it 2-0. That came after he won a faceoff to help set up Cam Barker for a slap shot that glanced off Brunette's stick for the game's first goal.
Then in the second period, Koivu did a 360-degree turn in the faceoff circle as he looked for an open teammate and found a charging Antti Miettinen for a perfect feed to stretch the lead to 4-0. The Brunette-Koivu-Miettinen line totalled seven points.
NOTES: Four of Berglund's 12 goals this season have come in the last seven games. ... Wild RW Owen Nolan was scratched because of an unspecified lower-body injury. ... Mason was pulled for the second time in four games. This was his 11th straight start. He won seven. ... Minnesota's bruiser Derek Boogaard got beat up in a fight with D.J. King less than four minutes into the game - and just 11 seconds into Boogaard's first shift. His nose, forehead and face were bloodied. He went to the locker room and didn't return.