Tonight was a beautiful night for Minnesota fans as the Wild hand delivered the first loss of the season to the Chicago Blackhawks. Not only did Minnesota win, but the team finally saw some offensive production from their second and third forward lines. This allowed Minnesota fans to breathe a small sigh of relief as secondary scoring has been a major problem for the team in its first six games of the season.
Minnesota got things rolling right away with a quick goal at the 1:30 mark in the first period. Struggling off the faceoff, Wild rookie Mikael Granlund was able to gather up the puck for a shot on goal. Devin Setoguchi fired the puck on a rebound and Matt Cullen finished the play for his first goal of the season. Chicago would counter with a goal at the 5:14 mark of the period as Andrew Shaw crashed the net and buried a Bryan Bickell centering feed top shelf past Wild goalie Josh Harding. Patrick Kane collected the second assist on Shaw’s goal. The Blackhawks would take the lead just 1:31 later via a charging Jonathan Toews on the left wing who put it five-hole on Harding on a bad angle shot with a speeding Brandon Saad streaking to the net down the center. Marian Hossa garnered the only assist on the play.
With the Hawks leading 2-1 just 6:45 into the game, Minnesota Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo felt something drastic needed to be done to stop the bleeding—he pulled Harding in favor of Niklas Backstrom. Josh’s goalie stick took the brunt of his anger and frustration as he gave the tunnel wall a couple of spirited whacks before walking down the hallway to the dressing room. However, you can bet that he wouldn’t have it any other way. Harding isn’t looking for special treatment; Yeo knows this and he pulled him like he would any other goaltender having a bad night. So, not quite seven minutes into the game—with his team down 2-1—Niklas Backstrom took the net and played brilliantly. According to Michael Russo of the Star Tribune, Yeo would later say that “pulling Harding is a decision he’s not feeling good about”. Yeo also mentioned that the lack of pregame skates or practices didn’t give Harding a good chance to prepare.
Though down 2-1, Minnesota finished the first period leading the Blackhawks 15-7 in shots on goal. The Wild would only fire six more shots on Crawford in regulation, but knotted up the game 2-2 at the :59 mark of the second period with a goal from Cal Clutterbuck. Third line center Kyle Brodziak lost the faceoff, but the aggressive fore check of Clutterbuck forced a turnover by a Blackhawks defender who nearly cleared it into the neutral zone. However, Wild defenseman Tom Gilbert snatched up the puck at the blue line, threw it in on net and Clutterbuck tipped it in past Crawford’s right leg pad into the back of the net. Gilbert’s assist extended his point-scoring streak to four—his third four-game streak in his career and is one game shy of tying his career long five game point streak.
The next 44 minutes of regulation and overtime was a back-and-forth toss up that could’ve gone either way. Both goaltenders made several key saves to keep their team in the game. After struggling against the Blues on Sunday and playing a decent game against the Blue Jackets last night, Backstrom was outstanding against Chicago, making 28 saves and stopping two of three Hawks in the skills competition.
Yes—I said the skills competition—which, of course, means there was a shootout. Zach Parise went first for Minnesota, freezing Crawford with a series of moves that led to Parise sliding the puck past the outstretched Chicago netminder. Toews was first for Chicago, once again scoring five-hole. Mikko Koivu, an always dangerous shootout specialist, took to the ice next, backhanding one up and off the glass. Then came Patrick Kane—the man all Wild fans fear to face in the shootout. Kane skated down the center deking, attempting to revive a move that had stunned Backstrom and the entire hockey world the last time Kane had faced the Wild netminder in the shootout. No dice as “Backs” stoned him with the left leg pad, winning—if nothing else—a moral victory on a personal level. Matt Cullen took his turn, mailing the puck five-hole with a deceptively quick release that may have even surprised himself.
Patrick Sharp was the last hope for a Chicago Blackhawks squad looking to preserve their perfect record. Sharp came in on Backstrom, had him dead to rights, beat the glove…and rang it off the crossbar and out of play. In the words of Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, “Sauron, enemy of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, was defeated”. No offense to the Blackhawks, they played an amazing game, but this was an incredible victory for the Wild and their fans as Backstrom backstopped the team to a 3-2 shootout victory.
Minnesota now sits with a 4-2-1 record with 9 points, one point ahead of Edmonton at this writing and good enough for first in the division and third in the Western Conference. If Vancouver doesn’t have an incredible collapse in the next few minutes, they’ll be tied with Edmonton, making the Northwest Division race a lot closer. The Wild will hit the road tomorrow to take on the Ducks in Anaheim on Friday before visiting the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday. The team will once again take to Xcel Energy Center ice next Thursday night when they play host to the Vancouver Canucks.
In a shortened season, every game—every point—counts, but especially road games and divisional games. So, the next few games are vitally important. With this victory over Chicago, Minnesota certainly won’t be taken for granted by any team in the NHL. As such, expect Coach Yeo and the team to be prepared for tough, gritty competition. You can bet it is sure going to be a lot of fun to watch.