ST. PAUL, Minn. - Niklas Backstrom picked up where he left off, bailing the Minnesota Wild out with another stellar game in goal.
Backstrom made 27 saves, Pierre-Marc Bouchard scored the game's only goal and the Wild hung on to beat the Chicago Blackhawks 1-0 on Thursday night in the season opener for both teams.
Minnesota coach Jacques Lemaire was wincing afterward, happy he had Backstrom - the unflappable Finn - around to make up for a flat, sluggish performance by most of his skaters.
"He played as good as he could play. You could say that he won this game for us," Lemaire said.
Backstrom was given a US$6.2-million, two-year contract in June, leading the team to trade Manny Fernandez to Boston. In his first game under the burden of the big money and the starting job, Backstrom was just as sharp and calm as he was as a 29-year-old rookie who helped the Wild make the playoffs for the second time in franchise history.
He didn't give up many rebounds and didn't budge when the Blackhawks had a brief 5-on-3 midway through the second period.
"It's easier when you don't have to think too much," Backstrom said.
Nikolai Khabibulin wasn't bad himself in the other net. He stopped 23 shots, letting only one get by him in the middle frame when Minnesota's attack was the strongest.
The four-time all-star has not played up to his reputation or his contract with Chicago, posting a goals-against average of 3.06 over his first two seasons with this young club.
The Blackhawks introduced Patrick Kane on the right wing after using the first selection in this summer's draft to take him. The 18-year-old, paired with fellow rookie Jonathan Toews, has given Chicago the hope of more offence and a return to competitiveness after several bleak years.
Toews, the third overall draft pick in 2006, was scratched because of a broken finger, delaying his debut by at least one game. But coach Denis Savard was excited about Kane, who had a late chance to tie it when his wrist shot from the left circle with less than one minute remaining that was smothered by Backstrom.
"Best forward on the ice. It says a lot about the kid. That's why it's going to be fun for our fans," said Savard, who sounded far more pleased by his team's effort than Lemaire did about his.
"We've got to just continue to keep going and climb that little hill," Savard said.
Kane played 16-plus minutes and put two shots on the net.
"I felt pretty good out there," he said. "It all comes down to working hard and playing with confidence. I guess it would've been really nice if we got the win, but all in all it's OK."
The Wild are further along in their development, as Bouchard - their first-round selection in 2002 - showed in the second period.
Coming off a 20-goal season and placed on a second line that coach Jacques Lemaire has raved about with Brian Rolston and new centre Eric Belanger, Bouchard got the first goal of 2007-08 for Minnesota.
Rolston took the puck to the blue line and fed Belanger, who went to the corner and sent a quick pass across the crease for Bouchard to knock it over and past Khabibulin's stick. The Wild almost had a second goal less than 2 minutes later, when Stephane Veilleux's shot from between the circles hit the crossbar and was signalled good on the ice. The video review, however, wiped it out.
Lemaire was frustrated with his defencemen and frequently mixed up the blue-line combinations. The first line of Marian Gaborik, Pavol Demitra and centre Wes Walz totalled only two shots.
"We had to stop the morning skate because they were flying. Tonight comes? No legs. No legs. We couldn't skate with those guys," Lemaire said.
Despite his disappointment, this was an even game a bit like the old North Stars-Blackhawks feuds in the Norris Division. It included a smattering of cold stares, shoves - and two fights involving Minnesota enforcer Derek Boogaard. He served seven penalty minutes.
Chicago's Martin Havlat, whose career has been marked by a series of injuries, hurt his shoulder on a punch in a scrum late in the third period. Savard said Havlat was injured trying to protect himself, and Havlat - who was sent for X-rays - was wearing a sling.
Notes: The Wild gave up the fewest goals in the league last season at 2.24 per game. The Blackhawks were second-to-last in the NHL in scoring with 2.38 goals per game. ... Former Minnesota defenceman Andrei Zyuzin is on injured reserve with Chicago because of a strained groin.