Point well-taken: Wild falls to Wings 2-1 in a shootout
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We're still nearly two months away from the start of the playoffs, and with the Minnesota Wild still not guaranteed anything, it may be a moot point in the State of Hockey. But the Wild is clearly in the hunt for one of the final two or three playoff spots, while the traditionally powerful Detroit Red Wings are looking like a lock for one of the top three positions in the Western Conference.
All of that means that Sunday morning's nationally-televised match with the Wings may well have been a a preview, seven weeks early or so, of a first-round playoff matchup. And if Minnesota fans like end-to-end hockey, with the home team's stellar defense and goaltending matching the visitors' high-powered offense, a few nights in April may be a lot of fun inside the Xcel Energy Center.
The Wings won 2-1 in a shootout, which ended in dramatic fashion, but the Wild earned another critical point in the standings despite Detroit extending its winning streak to five in a row.
Perhaps the NHL's most hated man in Minnesota, Wings thug Todd Bertuzzi, scored the shootout winner with a well-placed backhand that got beyond Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom and into the upper corner of the net. Bertuzzi was playing in his 1,000th career game, and his family was on hand in St. Paul, courtesy of Wings' owner Mike Illitch, who had them flown in from Ontario to enjoy the snow.
"No better place to get the two points and also score," said Bertuzzi, who first enraged Minnesota fans way back in 2003 as a member of the Vancouver Canucks, and is still booed by the Wild faithful nearly every time he touches the puck. "It's always a great atmosphere, every time we come here it's always a good game with the fans."
But before all of that drama, there was a well-played game between two teams that looked much closer on the ice than they are in the standings. And in what has become a bit of a repeated theme, Backstrom was frustratingly the difference, as the Wild - playing without captain Mikko Koivu for the first full game since the hand injury he suffered on Friday night - was content to be out-shot, but use what offensive resources it has, to play close throughout.
The game was still scoreless through two periods as Backstrom and Wings netminder Jimmy Howard engaged in an old-fashioned goalie's duel. That didn't change much in the third period and overtime, as both teams had offensive chances thwarted. Nicklas Lidstrom gave the Wings an important lead early in the third period, but a milestone breakaway by the Wild's Martin Havlat evened the score. On a breakaway, Havlat snapped a shot past Howard, evening the score and giving Havlat 500 career points.
"We're right there with everybody else, and we've got 68 points I think, and we're right there," said Havlat, assessing his team's place in the playoff hunt. "Any point for us is very important."
But the most important play was turned in, again, by Backstrom, who has been simply amazing in goal since returning from an injury in early January. He had 38 saves in the shootout loss, improving to 5-2-1 in his last eight starts, and stopped the Wings point blank repeatedly with the game on the line in the third period and overtime.
"I guess it's something you come to expect now, making certain saves look easy and making some saves that you aren't expecting him to make," said Wild coach Todd Richards. "Again, there was lots of battling out in front of him today and you have to give the players in front of him credit because Detroit, one thing they do extremely well, is they go to the net hard and they'll throw pucks there. Nik obviously had to scramble on a couple, but as a group of five we did a really good job of competing in that small area."
The area in which they have to compete for a playoff spot is getting smaller and smaller, and with many hints out there that Koivu's injury may be a long-term thing, this team may be stung offensively. That will mean even more reliance on Backstrom, which does not seem to be a bad thing with the way he is playing and the way the team is playing defense in front of him.
The shootout loss has come to be expected as well, as the Wild fell to 2-5 in the post-overtime breakaway contest. But the optimist who expects the Wild to make the playoffs can even find reason for hope in that stat.
There are no shootouts in the playoffs, and a hot goalie can take you deep into May.