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Northwest: So far, Wild refuse to lose

by Roger Phillips

Minnesota goaltender Niklas Backstrom has
posted two shutouts thus far to help the Wild
get off to a 7-0-1 start this season.

In the Northwest Division, no team had a quieter off-season than the Minnesota Wild. But in the first few weeks of the season, no team has spoken more forcefully.

The Wild are off to a remarkable start, posting a 7-0-1 record through the season’s first eight games. Not surprising, but still very impressive, is the play on defense and in goal.

Through the first eight games, the Wild allowed a total of only 11 goals and got two shutouts from starter Niklas Backstrom and one from young backup Josh Harding.

The only semblance of a loss was in a shootout in Los Angeles, somewhat ironic given that last season, it was the Wild’s proficiency in the shootout that kept them in the Northwest race during the early part of the season. Another impressive early season number -- Minnesota played half of its first eight games away from home and was 3-0-1 on the road.

The Wild had a shutout every other game through the first six, and in 485 minutes of hockey, they allowed only four even-strength goals. To put that in perspective, if they continue at that pace, the Wild will allow a total of only 40 even-strength goals all season. Not going to happen, but it’s rather mind-boggling nonetheless.

Minnesota is doing this with much the same lineup as last season, when the Wild finished in second place in the Northwest Division with 104 points, then lost in the first round of the playoffs.

As always, a key for the Wild is the continued health of right wing Marian Gaborik, who has missed sizable chunks of recent seasons with lower abdominal injuries.


But the biggest factor is the defensive stinginess, and the Wild is not overly reliant on any single defenseman. Kim Johnsson and Brent Burns are the ice-time leaders, both averaging a shade under 23 minutes a game.

That’s a far cry from the 29 minutes league ice-time leaders Francois Beauchemin and Chris Pronger play each night for Anaheim. And while the Wild might wish they had a couple horses to carry the load the way the Ducks’ duo does in Anaheim, there’s something to be said for not putting too great a burden on your defense through the course of the long NHL season.

Particularly memorable in the early stages of the season was a 2-0 victory on the road over the defending Stanley Cup champion Ducks in which Harding made 37 saves. The Ducks eliminated the Wild from last season’s playoffs in a heated series that turned ugly when Anaheim’s Brad May sucker-punched Johnsson.

“I don’t want to make too much of this win, but they’re the Stanley Cup champions. So we’ll keep that in mind and we’ll try to keep getting better,” veteran right wing Brian Rolston told reporters. “It was a chippy game and a hard-fought game. It was like a playoff hockey game.”

Wild enforced Derek Boogaard had a busy night against the Ducks. He fought May and George Parros, and the Ducks’ Todd Bertuzzi left with a concussion after being hit by Boogard.

After the game, the 6-foot-7, 258-pound Boogaard showed some respect to the 6-foot, 218-pound May for dropping the gloves with him.

“Just by him fighting, he knows he made a mistake last year and you have to respect that,” Boogaard said.

And you have to respect the way the Wild has played in the opening weeks this season.

Who’s hot -- As chronicled above, no one is hotter than the Wild. The offense has hardly been explosive, but it’s been very balanced. Through eight games, six players -- Pavol Demitra, Brian Rolston, Eric Belanger, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Marian Gaborik and Mikko Koivu -- had between six and eight points. The Wild’s goalies deserve kudos, too. Niklas Backstrom was 5-0-1 through six starts. He had a 1.48 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage

after stopping 149 of 158 shots. Perhaps someday he can be as good as backup Josh Harding, who was 2-0 with a 0.50 goals-against average and a .986 save percentage after stopping 70 of 71 shots. ... On the plus/minus front, Belanger was plus-9 and Bouchard was plus-8. … Though the Wild dominates, there are other hot players in the Northwest. Daymond Langkow continued his hot start as the Flames beat the Kings. Langkow posted his third two-goal game of the young season, and also picked up an assist. As of the beginning of the week, Langkow was among the NHL goal-scoring leaders with eight. … In a victory over the Coyotes, Edmonton won behind the second and third goals of the season for Raffi Torres, who scored only 15 all last year. … Ryan Kesler picked up his first two goals of the season as the Canucks recorded an easy victory over the Blue Jackets. … The Canucks’ Brendan Morrison already has four goals after scoring 20 all last year.

Shootout summary -- No shootout action in the division this week, so here’s a look at each team’s best and worst shootout performers from last season (based on percentage) who are still on the same team this year (minimum of four attempts):

Avalanche – Best: Joe Sakic 4-for-8, Wojtek Wolski 3-for-6 (50 percent); Worst: Paul Stastny 0-for-3.

Canucks – Best: Brendan Morrison 6-for-9 (67 percent); Worst: Daniel Sedin 1-for-6 (17 percent).

Flames – Best: Jarome Iginla 3-for-4 (75 percent); Worst: Kristian Huselius 1-for-5 (20 percent).

Oilers – Best: Fernando Pisani 1-for-3 (33 percent); Worst: Alex Hemsky 1-for-6 (17 percent). Note: Only Pisani and Hemsky had three or more attempts.

Wild – Best: Petterri Nummelin 6-for-7 (85.7 percent); Worst: Pierre-Marc Bouchard 1-for-6 (16.7 percent).

Rumor mill – The Calgary Herald reported goalie Miikka Kiprusoff and the Flames are continuing to haggle over a contract extension. He’s looking for a deal comparable to the one signed by Flames teammate Jarome Iginla, a contract that would recognize that Kiprusoff is equally important to the franchise. Kiprusoff can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. The problem for the Flames is that the salary cap looms, and several other top  players on the team also have contracts that are going to expire -- Dion Phaneuf, Daymond

Langkow and Kristian Huselius. Phaneuf will be restricted next summer, and Langkow and Huselius will be unrestricted. … Here’s one that had a short shelf life: Calgary’s Alex Tanguay to Montreal for Alexei Kovalev. The day after the rumor broke, it was shot down by papers in both cities. ... Not so much a rumor as a thought: Colorado goalie Peter Budaj was very solid last year, but had a 3.33 goals-against in the early going. Jose Theodore, he of the $6-million salary, hasn’t been airtight, either. The Avalanche entered the year with great expectations, but have been mediocre thus far. Obviously, it’s very early. But goaltending was viewed as a potential thorn in their side at the beginning of the season. Is it an area they may at some point feel the need to address? On the plus side, Budaj stopped 25 of 27 shots Tuesday night as the Avalanche beat the Oilers in Ryan Smyth’s return to Edmonton. … Until he signs somewhere, Peter Forsberg’s ultimate destination will be a constant topic. Reports suggest the Avalanche remains strongly interested. Can Forsberg play goal? He could be back on the ice somewhere within a month.

The week ahead -- The Oilers are preparing for one of the more intriguing games of the season, not just for them but in the entire league. They visit Anaheim Sunday. It will be the first time the teams have met since the Oilers spirited restricted free-agent forward Dustin Penner out of Anaheim with a lucrative offer sheet the Ducks declined to match. The signing sparked a feud between Oilers GM Kevin Lowe and Ducks counterpart Brian Burke. Who knows? The best action might not be on the ice but up in the suites at the Honda Center.

After completing a trip with games at Edmonton and Colorado, the Wild return home and get a look at Sidney Crosby & Co. Tuesday night.

The Canucks will finish a road trip Friday at Washington, and two nights later will be back on home ice for a tough one against the Red Wings.

It’s a light week for the Flames, who host the Avalanche on Friday night, the Predators on Tuesday and the Red Wings next Thursday, completing a seven-game home stand.

After finishing a four-game road trip Friday in Calgary, the Avalanche returns home for five games, facing each team in the Northwest Division plus the Penguins.

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