Last night’s game was a make or break game for the Minnesota Wild. Coming off two terrible games, they were scheduled to meet the defending President’s Trophy winners, Washington Capitals, on Thursday. They then face the defending Stanley Cup Champions, Chicago Blackhawks, on Saturday and the ever tough San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. So with no “easy team” to look forward to the Wild were going to have to make their stand against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. And, that’s exactly what they did.
The Wild team that took the ice against the Capitals looked like a completely different team than the one that has become the most penalized in the league. Maybe it was players finally getting healthy from the bug that was going around, maybe it was the injection of Casey Wellman and Colton Gillies into the lineup, maybe it was Guillame Latendresse sitting out (his skating has been poor, hampered by his groin injury) or maybe it was the Capitals playing on the back end of a back to back. But whatever it was, the Wild were the better team this game and except for a short flurry of turnovers and the final push at the end of the game, outplayed the Capitals.
Coach Todd Richards was looking to shake up his lines, and with injuries to Antti Miettinen and Latendresse, really had no choice. Chuck Kobasew took advantage of his chance on the top line and scored his 1st goal of the season. Mikko Koivu also came out of his slump and after whiffing on a breakaway, added a power play goal. But the real story of this game was the coaching and the goaltending. I don’t know if it was Richards, Rick Wilson, or someone else who devised the game plan but it worked perfectly. The Wild consistently pressured the Capitals at the blue line forcing one offsides after another. This kept the Capitals from ever being able to get into any kind of groove and Ovechkin was clearly frustrated. However the Capitals are too good of a team to keep away from the net all night, but when they did, Niklas Backstrom was there to save the Wild’s bacon.
I believe the question as to whether Backstrom could return to form this season has been answered. He was sharp in the loss to the Los Angeles Kings (also being helped by some errant shots when open nets were available) but he was downright amazing against the Capitals pulling off some beautiful saves. As Yogi Berra might opine if he had been a hockey player “Goaltending is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.” Backstrom has his swagger back and that is good news for the Wild.
This game was yet another example of hard work paying off for the Wild. They fought for the puck, they fought to get back turnovers, they skated hard, which lead to them winning the penalty battle. This game was a perfect example of what the Wild need to do every game to compete.