ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom had to fight being too comfortable in net during Sunday night’s game against the Edmonton Oilers.
Backstrom, Minnesota’s veteran netminder, said he’s maybe only seen one or two occasions in his entire hockey lifetime that he’s been able to enjoy the view from his own crease quite like he could during the second period Sunday. The Wild’s defense, which ranks as one of the best in the NHL, earned the sweetest retribution possible by completely shutting down Edmonton’s offense.
Backstrom made nary a save in the second period. He wasn’t needed. In a tamer rematch than expected 11 days ago when Oilers forward Taylor Hall kneed Minnesota’s Cal Clutterbuck in a dangerous play, the Wild were at their defensive best. The second period was the third time in team history Minnesota has held
an opponent without a shot, the last time coming March 31, 2009.
No one had a better view of the shutdown effort than Backstrom as Minnesota outshot the Oilers 18-0 in the second period and 43-21 for the game.
“It’s not easy, but I can’t complain,” Backstrom said of overcoming the mental aspect of not seeing a shot in the second. “It’s fun to watch the guys play this good.”
Mikko Koivu had a goal and two assists, including the game-winning goal just 9 seconds into the third period, and rookie Charlie Coyle scored the second NHL goal of his career and first at home, while adding an assist in the Wild’s 4-2 Sunday. Minnesota, which tallied a season-high with its 43 shots, is 7-3-1 in its last 11 games and now tied for fourth in the Western Conference.
For all of the consternation this season about the Wild’s lack of scoring — now ranked 26th in the league at 2.24 goals per game — Minnesota is one of the stingiest defensive teams in the NHL. Sunday’s 21 shots by Edmonton tied for the second fewest the Wild have allowed this season. Minnesota is allowing 2.38 goals per game, tied for seventh-fewest in the league and has given up just 27.3 shots per game, the sixth-lowest total.
“That’s kind of been the story, I think, in this room for before I was even here,” forward Devin Setoguchi said. “Take pride in your own end first and we give that credit to our ‘D’ and our forwards, just playing defense-first. We know if we do that, goals will come.”
With newcomer Ryan Suter eased into his role, and taking an NHL-high 27:25 of ice time per night, and 19-year-old defenseman Jonas Brodin playing well above his years, the Wild have become just the type of team Mike Yeo had hoped for defensively: sound, clean and hard to play against. Along with being solid at even-strength, Minnesota doesn’t take penalties. The Wild have been short-handed a league-low 65 times and are tied for the third-fewest power play goals (nine) allowed this season.
A system that has received criticism for not sustaining offense, has succeeded on the other end.
“The better we play with the puck; the better we execute, the better we get to our game, the more goals we’re going to score, but the less the other team is going to get,” Yeo said. “That’s what we have to stay focused on. I really like the way we played without the puck. I thought we were really aggressive and pressuring, and physical when we needed to be, but we have good structure. To me, this was just another level of our execution. That was the biggest difference. If you have the puck and you’re doing the right things with the puck, then it makes it awfully difficult (on the other team).”
Backstrom is now 17-0-0 at home against Edmonton and was rarely challenged Sunday night. The Oilers’ first goal was scored from the side of the net as Magnus Paajarvi scored on a second chance attempt that ricocheted off of Backstrom’s skate and into the net. The second goal deflected off of an Edmonton skate from behind the net and bounced off of Suter into the goal. He finished with 19 saves.
“It’s a big part of our game,” Backstrom said of the defense. “We want to build our game on strong defense and (when) you look at the best teams out there, that’s how you play winning hockey. It starts from your own net out and that’s the structure of our game. It’s not two or three guys, it’s the whole unit out there helping each other.”
While Backstrom was fighting his own defense-created malaise in the second period, the offense had to overcome its own frustration, dominating a period in which it outshot the Oilers 18-0 but without a score.
“That was one of the most impressive things to me is the way that we came out right with the right focus in the third period,” Yeo said. “It’s quite easy to deviate. It’s quite easy to stray and we didn’t. We just kept coming out with the same focus and what more can you say about Mikko’s line coming out and starting that way, and really setting the tone obviously.”
And a happy Yeo summarized the effort nearly perfectly.
“I really liked the start of our game and I really liked the finish,” Yeo said, “And I really liked the part in between too.”