Wild 1, Blackhawks 0
The preseason was the preseason. Records aren’t kept. A team that goes 0-7-0 remains tied for first place. Once it’s over, it has nothing to do with the regular season. Still, after scoring 25 goals in seven games, the talk entering Thursday night’s season opener with the Chicago Blackhawks was the Minnesota Wild’s vaunted offense. It had struck for 10 goals in two exhibition games with these very Hawks, and Mikko Koivu
and Brent Burns
accounted for six of them.
How quickly we forget that the number one reason for the Wild’s 104-point record-breaking season in 2006-2007 was the man between the pipes, Niklas Backstrom
Backstrom was at his best, even though if there was a player who may have been a bit shaky in the preseason, it was probably him.
Backstrom turned aside all 27 Chicago shots in a 1-0 victory, including several in the excruciating final minutes that left Head Coach Jacques Lemaire gasping for breath.
“I don’t want anymore games like that,” said Lemaire. “I’m 62. I’ll be 75 soon!”
Backstrom didn’t seem to mind the tense third period in which the Blackhawks fired seven shots on goal, but had plenty more rushes.
“It felt good to be out there,” said the owner of the best goals against average and save percentage in the National Hockey League last year. “This is the day we’ve been waiting for for the last four or five months. It’s good to be finally here. We played a great third period, and we didn’t give anything to them. That shows a big strength of this team.”
The Wild has now won its last six home openers, and remained undefeated at 6-0-1. Pierre-Marc Bouchard
’s second period goal stood as the game-winner, which was fitting because his line was the best on the ice on this night. Bouchard, his partner and crime, Brian Rolston, and newcomer Eric Belanger were buzzing from the start. All three touched the puck on a beautiful play that led to Bouchard’s goal from the slot.
“I know we can still go better,” said Bouchard. “I think the three of us are clicking. Hopefully we can keep it that way. Eric just made a great pass to me in the slot there.”
Both teams had their share of chances, but the game never threatened to get out of control. The defensive nature of the NHL is to blame for that, according to Lemaire.
“Even if you do have the skills, it’s hard to penetrate because there’s four guys there,” he said. “You can’t beat the four guys. You can’t give it to the goalie. So everywhere you put the puck has to be in the right place.”
Bouchard agreed, “They were sitting a lot, especially in the neutral zone. At the beginning, we were trying to make plays and get in, but it didn’t work.”
The Wild has never been a slouch defensively, either. No one was better than Nick Schultz
, who was instrumental on Chicago’s second period 5-on-3. He also stood up Blackhawk star Martin Havlat
on a late third period rush into the slot.
“I think we can play a lot better than we did,” said Schultz. “It’s nice the way we played in the third period, being up 1-0. We owe a lot to Backstrom. He played extremely well, and we wouldn’t have won this game without him.”
Lemaire and his players marveled at the welcome the team received after a stirring opening ceremony that honored the heroes from the I-35W bridge collapse, and featured player-by-player introductions. Even for the unflappable Backstrom, the nervousness trickled into the mind.
“I tried to focus like it was a normal day and a normal game,” he said. “But when I skated out on the ice and looked at the crowd, I got the feeling of chills in my whole body. I just tried to enjoy it because it’s one of the best moments in hockey life.”Game Puck Goes To…Niklas Backstrom
. You just never feel nervous when this guy is between the pipes, even in a one-goal game. Backstrom had to make very few spectacular saves because he was in position to cleanly stop every shot. Honorable Mention…Nick Schultz
. While Brent Burns
showed flashes of brilliance, he also showed pieces of his youth. On the other hand, Schultz was as steady as ever, playing perfect positional hockey and keeping the Hawks at bay in the third.Worth Noting…
The Wild has won each of the last 13 games in which Bouchard has scored a goal.
|Three star selections