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Cullen scores twice, Wild win third straight

by Rick Sadowski /
DENVER -- It wouldn't be wise to count the Minnesota Wild out of the playoff picture just yet.

Getting two goals and an assist from Matt Cullen, along with a strong goaltending performance from Niklas Backstrom, the Wild on Thursday night knocked off the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 at the Pepsi Center for their third consecutive win, matching a season high.

The Wild have gained points in seven of their past nine games, posting a 5-2-2 record since Dec. 3 to move three games above .500 at 16-13-4 with four of the next five games at home.

"It was one of those games that you kind of understand the importance of it," Cullen said. "It's a big game. I think a lot of guys rose to the occasion. A lot of guys brought their ‘A' game. This is such a crucial point in the season for us. It's not easy to get on a roll. We wanted to fight to keep that momentum going. It was just a big win."

The Avalanche, meanwhile, head into the Christmas break having lost two games in a row in regulation for the first time since late November after winning six games in succession.

"Overall, I didn't think it was a very good team effort," said David Jones, who scored the Avalanche's lone goal. "Now we've got two days off where we've got to be thinking about this. We had a pretty good streak going and now we've got to get back to playing our way for 60 minutes. Hopefully we'll come back from the break with a good effort."

Cullen scored what could be described as two holiday gift goals in the first period when the Wild took a 2-1 lead, and Andrew Brunette netted a power-play goal early in the second period.

Cullen opened the scoring at 9:23 with a shorthanded goal after Avalanche goalie Craig Anderson made a sprawling stop against Cal Clutterbuck on a clean breakaway. The rebound was loose in front and Cullen nudged the puck into an empty net.

Jones answered with his first goal in 11 games, shoving the puck into the net at 10:08 on the same Avalanche power play after Backstrom got his glove on Brandon Yip's shot but didn't completely cover it.

"I felt like I had good wheels tonight and was moving my feet," said Jones, who had five shots on goal. "I had quite a few chances and it would have been nice to bury more."

 Cullen put the Wild ahead at 16:04 after Marek Zidlicky's shot from just inside the blue line ricocheted off the end boards and bounced off Anderson at the side of the net. The puck landed in the crease and Cullen tapped it into the open net.

Brunette's power-play goal at 2:46 of the second period increased the Wild lead to 3-1 and ended Anderson's night. Anderson, who faced 14 shots, was pulled in favor of Peter Budaj.

"I just felt at that time that we needed to make a change," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "Craig knows that he needs to be better, and he will be. (Bad breaks) are the way the game goes sometimes and I just felt it was the right time to make the change for the team."

Brunette scored inside the right post after beating Avalanche penalty killer Ryan O'Reilly to the puck after Cullen launched a shot off the end boards. Colorado's David Koci was in the penalty box at the time after being cited for roughing on a check against Eric Nystrom.

"We went out and scored a goal," Wild coach Todd Richards said. "If guys want to run around and take penalties, then you've got to make them pay."

Said Clutterbuck: "If they're going to take a penalty, take a penalty. We're on the road, we'll take a power play any day of the week. If they want to flaunt their egos, they want to show how tough they are, we're going to beat you."

Though Anderson was victimized by some unfortunate breaks, he said he needs to play better.

"It's just kind of the way things are going for me now," said Anderson, who was in net in Tuesday's 5-0 loss to Los Angeles. "It's not going the way I want, but it's something that I have to fix and correct. I have to make sure that I'm better. These guys have to trust me and rely on me, and I have to make sure that I deliver. The last couple games I haven't and I'm not happy about that.

"It's getting back to work and earning my ice time. Nothing is given in this game and I have to put the work boots on and get back to the way I was playing before."

Backstrom was terrific, stopping 36 shots, with 15 saves in the third period. He's allowed just one goal each in three consecutive wins while facing 101 shots.

"He played great," Jones said. "We were peppering him pretty good and he stood in there. It's tough to win a game with one goal, so we have to do a better job."

Budaj turned back all 18 shots he faced in his first appearance since he went the distance on Dec. 4 in a 6-5 road loss to Tampa Bay.

The Avalanche lost forward Greg Mauldin to an apparent head injury when he crashed into the boards and glass at 5:28 of the third period. He needed assistance getting to the trainer's room after laying face down on the ice and was to be re-examined on Friday.
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