ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - For the first time in the Minnesota Wild's six-year existence, the team started a season with a true No. 1 goaltender.
If Niklas Backstrom keeps playing this well in relief of the injured Manny Fernandez, the Wild may be forced to go back to the platoon system that worked so well in the past. Backstrom made 41 saves, and Brent Burns had a goal and an assist in the third period to stave off the Florida Panthers in the Wild's 4-2 victory on Thursday night.
Fernandez started the season as the main man in the nets for the Wild, but he hasn't been his usual stellar self for much of the season. A strained left knee has kept him on the shelf for four games, and the rookie Backstrom is starting to take advantage.
"When you have a No. 1 goalie, you have to play him as much as possible, and the other guy has to wait and be patient," Wild coach Jacques Lemaire said. "And if he's not, he gets frustrated. ... But Backstrom was very patient and kept working. Now he's got his chance and he's playing well."
Backstrom is 3-1 in the last four games, including a shutout of Phoenix on Saturday, and his 41 saves on Thursday were a season high for a Wild goaltender.
"I feel OK," Backstrom said. "There's some things I have to work on, but these guys are helping me so much."
Mark Parrish, Todd White and Pavol Demitra also scored for the Wild, who moved within one point of Northwest Division-leading Calgary.
Nathan Horton and Martin Gelinas scored for the struggling Panthers, who couldn't overcome a shaky night from 41-year-old goaltender Ed Belfour.
One game after playing well in a 5-4 loss to Colorado, Belfour gave up plenty of big rebounds against Minnesota, three of which led to goals.
"It seems like the rebounds that came out went right out to players and they got an open net," Horton said.
Wild winger Branko Radivojevic tied a career high with three assists and White added one for Minnesota, which continued Florida's misery away from home.
The Panthers' six road wins are the fewest in the NHL, and after controlling the action early, the Panthers had little to show for it.
With Brian Rolston, Minnesota's lone all-star and offensive spark plug out with the flu, the Wild struggled to get going early.
The Panthers outshot the Wild 11-0 in the first 10 minutes. The home crowd eschewed "Minnesota Nice" with a Bronx cheer when White floated a weak wrist shot on goal for the Wild's first shot of the game.
But Backstrom turned away every shot, and the Wild closed the period outshooting Florida 11-1 before getting on the board early in the second.
"They had probably 15 shots in the first period and a lot of them could have gone in," Lemaire said. "Just superb in the net."
The same could not be said for Belfour. He gave up a soft rebound off a shot by Martin Skoula from the point, and Parrish was there to pounce on it, giving Minnesota a 1-0 lead less than three minutes into the period.
It was the first goal in 12 games for the Bloomington native, who was one of the high-profile signings in the off-season by the Wild.
Demitra and Burns both scored power-play goals in the third period for the Wild, a sore spot for the Panthers.
"It seems like it happens every game," Horton said. "We take a penalty and put ourselves in that position. They get a goal and it takes us right out of the game. They get a goal and then we can't come back."
Gelinas took a nice feed from Horton for an easy goal on the back door, and Horton took advantage of a funny bounce off the boards to score into a wide-open net to make it 3-2 with 11:30 to play.
But a slashing penalty on Chris Gratton led to Burns' goal that put the game away.
"I think it was a bad call," Panthers centre Olli Jokinen said. "That's the frustrating part. In a 3-2 hockey game ... there is 20, 30 times in that game the same thing happened, and there's 6 minutes to go and he calls the penalty. I couldn't believe it."
Notes: Enforcer Derek Boogaard assisted on White's goal for his first point since Jan. 7, 2006, a span of 67 games. ... Wild D Kurtis Foster is close to coming back from a knee injury, but sat out. ... For Florida, C Jozef Stumpel (shoulder) and RW Juraj Kolnik (mouth) were scratched.