Wild 4, Blues 2

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 defense did a very good

job.”

The offense, 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 center 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 center 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 maneuvered 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 totaled 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 4 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.