ST. PAUL, Minn. -- With his team on the losing end of seven straight games and its playoff hopes on life support, Minnesota Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom came up big every time Sunday afternoon at Xcel Energy Center.
The veteran Finn stymied the Boston Bruins at every turn, stopping 48 shots – 22 in the third period alone – in a 2-0 win on Hockey Day Across America. It was his second shutout in five career games against the Bruins, and his 48 saves also established a new career high and set a Wild record for most saves in a shutout.
"I felt pretty good the whole day," Backstrom said. "I just tried to go out there, enjoy it and have fun. It's the best team we can play, so it's a big challenge. You want to measure yourself against the best."
"Am I allowed to smile?" said Wild coach Mike Yeo, whose team also had lost five straight games at home, a club record. "Obviously, Back was outstanding tonight, especially early in the game when they got off to a great start and had a couple of great chances early in the game."
Backstrom shut down a pair of Daniel Paille breakaways in the first period, one where Boston outshot Minnesota 14-12 but had a large edge in quality scoring chances.
Midway through the second, Eden Prairie, Minn., native Chad Rau got the Wild on the board. After taking a red-eye flight from the west coast, Rau arrived in the Twin Cities a little after 6 this morning. Uncertain about the status of Warren Peters following an incident yesterday in St. Louis, the Wild called Rau up from AHL Houston. When Peters' suspension was handed down early this afternoon by NHL player safety czar Brendan Shanahan, Rau was inserted into the lineup.
It turned out to be a stroke of genius.
After a nifty behind the back pass by Dany Heatley in the neutral zone, Rau cruised down the left side, looking back at a trailing Marco Scandella just enough to force Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas off the post. Thomas adjusted and Rau snapped a shot short-side at the 10:15 mark of the second to give the Wild a 1-0 lead.
"Just kind of got lucky," Rau said. "Got the puck on the wing and saw Scandy jump into the rush. Luckily he did, otherwise it would have been a tough play, 1-on-1 against [Zdeno] Chara.
"I looked to pass, but saw Scandy was a little late, so at the last second I decided to shoot."
The goal was Rau's second career tally -- both of them game winners. Rau, who has shuttled back and forth between Minnesota and Houston three different times this season, has played in just five games. Ironically, his first goal came in a 5-2 win over Dallas last month on Hockey Day Minnesota.
"I don't mind if there's Hockey Days going on," Rau said with a chuckle.
The goal was all the help Backstrom would need. The Bruins put 12 more shots on him in the second, and the Wild were able to get a key insurance marker from Matt Cullen late in the period to take a 2-0 lead to the intermission.
The goal broke a month-long drought for the Virginia, Minn. native, who hadn't scored since Jan. 10. The lack of scoring was starting to weigh on the veteran center, although it wasn't for a lack of quality chances. Numerous times over the Wild's losing streak Cullen, it seemed, couldn't catch a break.
Today, he did. After a great set-up pass by Devin Setoguchi at center, Cullen skated into the zone and whiffed on a wrist shot. But the miss seemed to get Thomas out of position and Cullen, ever patient, gathered in the puck again, glided into the slot, and rifled a shot over Thomas.
Boston came out firing early and often in the third. Late in the frame, the Bruins' frustration began to show after Chara found Milan Lucic down low with an open net. Lucic fired, but Backstrom sprawled to make a glove save before Lucic slammed his stick into the ice.
"I thought [Backstrom] was the difference in the game," Chara said.
"We're getting our chances, we're just not burying them," said Bruins coach Claude Julien. "I think we're squeezing our sticks a little bit because of what we're going through. We just need to stick with it here and fight our way out of it."
Now 0-2 on their current five-game road trip, the Bruins are off until Wednesday when they play at St. Louis. With Calgary and Los Angeles both idle today, the Wild pulled to within four points of eighth in the west, but will not have a chance to build on its most impressive win in weeks -- perhaps months -- until Thursday at Florida.
"We could use a couple of practice days," Yeo said. "I don't think it's a bad thing to look at this game and evaluate it. To use it, but also work on a couple things and understand that if we can do this today, we better be ready to do it the next game, too."