ST. PAUL, Minn. -- It wasn't a bad run for the Chicago Blackhawks to start the 2012-13 campaign. But after finding a way to win four straight one-goal games -- and six overall -- the Blackhawks were on the losing end of a one-goal difference Wednesday against the Minnesota Wild.
A Matt Cullen goal early in the game and again in the shootout was just enough for the Wild as they handed the Blackhawks their first loss of the season, 3-2 at Xcel Energy Center.
"Those are the tight games the last three or four games that we've found a way to win," said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews. "We were this close again. A chance in overtime and in the shootout we just came up a little bit short.
"We've put ourselves in a great spot at the top of the standings after seven games. We gotta make it even tougher for teams to catch us."
The loss was a bitter way to start a critical six-game road trip, especially since the Blackhawks controlled much of the final half of the game. If not for Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom, who entered the game in relief of an ineffective Josh Harding just 6:45 into the game, Chicago's win streak would likely be at seven.
Backstrom's stopped all 28 shots he faced, including 17 in the third period and overtime.
"The team played well, but we need to bury the chances we get," said Chicago forward Andrew Shaw.
Minnesota came out red-hot early, blanketing Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford with several shots in the opening couple minutes before Cullen slammed home a rebound just 1:30 into the contest, giving the Wild an early 1-0 lead.
But Chicago responded with a couple of good shifts right after. Shaw tied the game at 5:14 thanks to a nifty play by linemate Bryan Bickell, who went to the net with the puck from the left corner and centered a pass to a crashing Shaw in the slot for his first of the season.
Just 90 seconds later, Toews and Brandon Saad cruised into the Wild zone 2-on-2 before Toews snapped a bad angle shot from the left circle through Harding's five-hole to give Chicago the lead.
That was enough for Wild coach Mike Yeo to make the move, as Harding appeared to be fighting the puck from the start. What should have been a fairly routine save a couple of minutes earlier had ricocheted off the crossbar. He had also made an awkward blocker save just before Toews' tally.
"It's not a decision I'm sitting here feeling good about, that's for sure. I've never done that, pulled a goalie after two goals. I just felt it's what we needed."
Backstrom rewarded Yeo's bold move, finding his groove early on before being tested several times later in the contest. The relief appearance was just Backstrom's third in the last three years and first since Nov. 12, 2011.
"We [needed] to get on the next goalie early, get on Backstrom, get pucks to the net, get some traffic," Shaw said. "I don't think we did a good job at that."
Still down one early in the second, Minnesota got a great opening shift of the period from its third line. The grouping scored the tying goal just 59 seconds in, as Cal Clutterbuck scored his first of the season, deflecting a Tom Gilbert shot from the point.
Gilbert's assist gave him at least one point in four straight games for just the third time in his career and leaves him one game short of his career long of five straight games, achieved in April 2010.
Minnesota, playing the second game of a back-to-back, started to bog down after that, as Yeo said Chicago was able to take advantage of tired legs and mental errors.
"We started to stretch our shifts out, get hemmed in," Yeo said. "When you start to play tired, you can't win your battles, you can't win your foot races, you don't execute as well as you don't even play as good without the puck."
After being outshot 15-7 through 20 minutes, Chicago out-chanced Minnesota 19-6 during the second and third periods, but could get nothing past Backstrom.
"I thought we got better as the game went on. After the first period, I think we were fortunate to be ahead," said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. "The second part of the game, we were in their end a lot more and didn't give up much. But if you go to the shootout, anything can happen."
"He was there for us," Yeo said of Backstrom.
Zach Parise opened the shootout with a goal for the Wild but was matched by Toews, his former University of North Dakota linemate. Mikko Koivu shot high in round two and Backstrom stopped Patrick Kane before Cullen's forehand snapshot beat Crawford five-hole for the win. Patrick Sharp rang the post as he attempted to extend the shootout and keep the Hawks win streak alive.
"Its [been] a great start," Toews said. "The best thing about that is we're doing a great job of putting the last game behind us and getting ready for the next one."
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