Wild gain momentum in Flames’ home-and-home opener

By Jamie MacDonald
FOXSportsWisconsin.com
December 18, 2010

Visiting Minnesota entered Saturday’s game with 30 points, only one from the Western Conference cellar, and on a two-game losing streak. Host Calgary entered with two consecutive wins, which had allowed it to leapfrog the Wild over the past week and take a one-point lead in the standings.

On Saturday, though, in the opener of an important, statement-series home-and-home between the Northwest Division rivals, the Wild put its nose back in front of the Flames for at least a few days. With a 3-1 win in Calgary, Minnesota will return to Saint Paul with a chance to add some distance when the teams renew acquaintances on Monday night.

Based on Saturday’s performance, the Wild certainly proved capable.

Mikko Koivu recorded a three-point night on a goal and two assists. Niklas Backstrom made 14 saves in the third period to shut the door. The power play converted (again). Matt Cullen was back. The Wild hit their magic number of three goals.

This was not a squeaker of a win or one where the visitors were lucky to escape with two points. And while the Wild are on a bit of a roll against the Flames — eight wins in 11 meetings — this win has to be considered both gratifying and encouraging under the circumstances.

The shot totals may suggest otherwise, thanks in large part to the teams combining on more than 30 blocked shots, the front end of the home-and-home was entertaining throughout, and the Wild simply executed more consistently.

Especially, at long last, in the second period.

FRAME THIS FRAME

Too often this season, the Wild have made the middle frame the stuff of nightmares. On Saturday, it was the second that proved to make the difference.

But it wasn’t easy.

At times during the period, Calgary ran the Wild around in their own zone, taking a few stabs at Backstrom before the 10:00 mark and sustaining pressure in the waning minutes. On both occasions, the Wild took back the momentum with goals.

Calgary took what seemed to be a retaliation penalty after Greg Zanon had a quick run-in with Rene Bourque, and Niklas Hagman wound up in the box for slashing Marek Zidlicky at 14:03.

Facing the league’s 21st penalty kill unit, Minnesota made it 1-0 on the ensuing power play. Koivu used a quick move and his speed to beat Jay Bouwmeester to the outside, while Antti Miettinen used his own speed to get behind the defense and make himself available for a redirect at 15:25.

It wasn’t long before Calgary took the game over for a few minutes. Near the 16:00 mark, the Wild were left scrambling in their end. When they did manage to get the puck out, it was rarely deep enough for much more than a deep breath. Calgary would casually pick up the puck, then gladly return to hammering away in the Minnesota end.

Then Koivu, playing nearly all night with Chuck Kobasew and Andrew Brunette, struck again.

With the clock ticking under a minute and the Wild on a line rush, Brunette looked up from the left wing and hit a trailing Brent Burns high in the top of the zone on the right point. Burns fired toward the net through traffic, and it was Koivu who tipped the puck in at 19:07 for a 2-0 lead.

The goal brought a rare smile to Todd Richards on the bench.

BACKS BOUNCING BACK

One game isn’t a proper sample size, but Backstrom gave the Wild exactly what they needed Saturday. In addition to the routine saves, he was also there to stop a few odd deflections — one from Burns — that required making a save with an entirely different part of his body.

He also made a flash-of-the-glove save on a short-side shot from Alex Tanguay during the skittish minutes in the second, and a stop on Jarome Iginla during Calgary’s frantic push in the third.

While he didn’t record a shutout, there’s a fairly good chance he’s just as happy with the win.

GOAL OF THE NIGHT

Koivu also played a key role in the game’s third goal, one of the prettiest passing plays of the season.

Burns moved the puck to Nick Schultz at the top of the zone, from right to left, and Schultz sent it immediately to Koivu on the right. Just as quickly, Koivu zipped the puck to Kobasew deep in the zone on the left, and Kobasew pumped it home at 7:41 of the third.

The play nearly traced a giant Z in the ice and a very satisfying 3 on the scoreboard. It also happened to be Kobasew’s third of the season.

ALL BLOCKED UP

Barely a minute into the game, Pierre-Marc Bouchard wound up for a slap shot near the top of the right circle that was blocked, and the puck fluttered harmlessly away. It was a sign of things to come.

Blocked shots, in fact, were at times more likely than shots on net.

The teams crossed the 30-blocks mark — 16 for Calgary, 15 for Minnesota — with just less than 10 minutes to play in the game.

ADVENTURES OF CAL

Cal Clutterbuck, playing mostly with John Madden and Eric Nystrom, had an interesting evening, one in which he couldn’t seem to catch a break from the officials.

In the first, he was dumped by Rene Bourque before he had a chance to play the puck.

In the second, Tom Kostopoulos, lined up next to him on a draw, stomped on the blade of his stick, forcing Clutterbuck to the bench for a new one before the puck dropped.

In the third, Tim Jackman gave him a post-whistle cross check to the arm that went unnoticed.

UP NEXT

Litmus tests will continue to come throughout the season, but few at this time of year come so distilled.

The Flames have also struggled this season. And now that the two teams are sitting at 14 wins (Minnesota in two fewer games), the Wild are in position to push in the right direction.

After that, they’ll hit the road for a third consecutive game against a division rival, this one Thursday night in Colorado against the 18-10-4 Avalanche.