Myers: Wild will go as far as Niklas Backstrom, defense can take them
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Vikings fans spent the summer knowing that all of the talk about rookies and defense might not matter if the quarterback didn't play well. Twins fans spend every off-season knowing that all the hitting in the world might not matter if the starting pitching falters.
In the same vein, fans of the Minnesota Wild who are excited about their team's potential for offense still know that in the modern NHL, you win games 4-2 and 3-1, not 9-8 and 10-6. In other words, the offensive efforts of Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Dany Heatley and Mikko Koivu might not matter if the defense and the goaltending are porous on a too-consistent basis.
For all of Josh Harding's inspiring, award-winning heroics in the playoffs last season, he's the backup goalie at best. The net still belongs to Niklas Backstrom, who started the Wild's preseason opener on Tuesday and gave up all three Columbus Blue Jackets goals in a 3-1 loss.
How Backstrom interacts with the defense, and how often they combine to keep the red light in the Wild's defensive zone from shining, will likely mean the difference between a return to the playoffs and April tee times.
Wild coach Mike Yeo sat the Wild's "big two" defenders - Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin - for the exhibition opener. Also wearing suits instead of skates were blue line regulars Clayton Stoner and Jared Spurgeon. In their place, the fans who came out on Tuesday got to see a familiar Minnesota face from the past, and a possible glimpse of the future.
Former Gophers star Keith Ballard, who signed a free agent pact with the Wild over the summer, was paired with Matt Dumba, the Wild's first round draft pick in 2012. Ballard has played in more than 550 NHL games. Dumba has played in none. Both admitted dealing with the kinks that come in game one.
"We were a bit sloppy tonight, to put it mildly. All through the lineup we had some good moments, but it looked like our first preseason game," Ballard said. "At times we moved it pretty well, and at times we got ourselves into a little trouble."
The struggles of that pair served as a microcosm of the night for the Wild, who were facing a Blue Jackets team that had already played a preseason game, and looked more in tune overall.
"I thought that sometimes we made things a little bit difficult on ourselves," Yeo said. "You could tell that we just weren't up to game speed, especially early in that game. We seemed to be caught off guard, and not just the defensemen."
Backstrom had seven saves in the first half of the game, before giving way to Darcy Kuemper, who had served as Harding's backup in the playoffs, and saw some action versus the Blackhawks last spring. Kuemper also finished with seven saves, and both goalies began the work of getting to know their defensemen and developing some chemistry with their last lines of defense.
For all of the emphasis on scoring goals, even the youngest members of the Wild are well aware that keeping the puck out of their own net is job one.
"The D corps is where it all starts, moving the puck up ice and being solid in our own zone," Dumba said. "I want to be reliable out there and know that the coaches can trust me."
After a sloppy opening act versus Columbus, the job of earning trust for the Wild defenders will continue as the preseason rolls along.