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Backstrom, Coyle help Wild overcome Harding injury

by Patrick Williams

WINNIPEG -- The Minnesota Wild survived an injury to goaltender Josh Harding' minutes before the opening faceoff of their game against the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday afternoon, then overcame a third-period deficit to win 3-2 in a shootout.

Harding missed his scheduled start after sustaining a lower-body injury during warm-ups. The injury forced Niklas Backstrom into emergency duty. Backstrom, activated from injured reserve before the game, made 37 saves, and Charlie Coyle won it with a goal in the fourth round of the tiebreaker.

"You have to be ready all the time," Backstrom said. "You never know what's going to happen, so you have to find a way to be ready and be at your best. You don't really have that much time to think. You just go out there and play and get into the game."

Backstrom's play set up a late comeback for the Wild. Shorthanded and trailing 2-1 late in the third period, Zach Parise tied the score with 4:55 left in the third period when captain Mikko Koivu reached him with a pass on a 3-on-2 rush into the Winnipeg zone. Parise outmaneuvered Jets forward Bryan Little before one-timing Koivu's pass behind goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.

After Koivu and Little scored in the shootout, Coyle won it by beating Pavelec in the fourth round.

The Wild (15-5-4), who had played eight of their past 10 games against Eastern Conference opponents, began a run of five straight games facing Western Conference foes. With 34 points in their first 24 games, the Wild are off to the best start in franchise history and have won six of their past seven games and nine of their past 11.

The Jets (10-11-4), on an 0-2-2 slide, received goals from third-liners Michael Frolik and Matt Halischuk, and Pavelec stopped 33 shots. Nino Niederreiter's goal for Minnesota early in the third period made it 1-1 before Halischuk put Winnipeg ahead 2:14 later.

The Jets' five shorthanded goals against are the most in the League, and their 11 power-play goals are the third-fewest.

"I thought we played a pretty good game," Jets coach Claude Noel said. "I thought we for the most part we got a good effort from a lot of players, and as you can see, winning and losing is determined by a fine line for us."

The Wild were also without forward Mikael Granlund (upper body), whom the Wild learned earlier in the day would not be available. Granlund's absence forced the Wild to dress 11 forwards and seven defensemen.

"It's not always easy to find your game through the course of the game," coach Mike Yeo said, "but I give our guys credit for that. I always believe that when things are at their most intense, that's when you revert back to your habits, and this is showing that we have good habits right now."

Yeo did not provide an update on Harding's health after the game. His 1.48 goals-against average ranks second in the NHL and he is tied for second in the League with 13 wins and two shutouts. His save percentage (.939) is among the top 10.

Backstrom played his first game since a collision with the Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri on Nov. 13. Backstrom, who practiced once since the injury, had a 1-1-2 record in seven games, a 3.30 GAA and an .874 save percentage.

"[Backstrom] was the difference in the game for us," Yeo said. "I mean, obviously, I give our players a great deal of credit for dealing with the adversity with what happened at the beginning of the game. But it's a little bit easier to deal with it when you see your goalie go out and play the way that he was."

Harding's injury caused the Wild to play the first period without a backup goaltender until Darcy Kuemper arrived at MTS Centre. The Wild managed to retrieve Kuemper, who was sitting on a plane at Winnipeg International Airport after Minnesota removed him from the roster and sent him to the Iowa Wild, the team's American Hockey League affiliate, a few hours before the game. Kuemper was added to the lineup as an emergency exemption.

"It was bizarre," Yeo said. "I spent a lot of time before the game figuring out line combinations and how to get [a player] back from the airport, but you've got to deal with that type of adversity, and our guys did."

Winnipeg had four shots on Backstrom in the opening 10 minutes before becoming more active in the Minnesota zone in the latter half of the first period. The hosts finished the first period with a 14-3 shots advantage.

"In the first period, we just weren't good enough by any stretch, and he kept us in it and gave us a chance to continue to find our game, and it's a real credit to [Backstrom]," Yeo said.

The Jets' third line cracked Backstrom 13:07 into the second period. Halischuk drove the Minnesota net off the right side and let go a rising shot that Backstrom failed to control. Frolik crashed the net and shoved the rebound under Backstrom.

The goalie held firm against the Jets over the first two periods and provided the Wild with time to settle down and find their game.

"If it weren't for Backstrom it really could have gotten out of control early," Parise said. "We could have been down 3-0, 4-0, 5-0 in the first period. He made some unbelievable saves. That wasn't the ideal start. We were lucky to get out of there."

The banged-up Winnipeg blue line received some relief with Mark Stuart's return after he missed 12 of the past 16 games with a hip injury, including a 10-game absence that dated to Oct. 27.

The Jets begin a six-game journey through the Eastern Conference during the next two weeks and will not play another home game until Dec. 10.

"It doesn't matter whether we're on the road or at home, I guess, you want to get to playing the right way and winning hockey games," captain Andrew Ladd said. "But at the same time, sometimes it's nice to get away from the noise here and just focus on hockey."

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