Updated: January 30th, 2013 11:33pm
Zulgad: Wild coach makes all the right moves in win over Blackhawks

Zulgad: Wild coach makes all the right moves in win over Blackhawks

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by Judd Zulgad

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Mike Yeo didn't feel good about the decision but it certainly proved to be the right one.

After watching Josh Harding surrender two goals on four shots in the opening 6 minutes, 45 seconds on Wednesday night to the Chicago Blackhawks, Yeo lifted his backup goalie and put Niklas Backstrom in the game.

"It's not a decision I'm sitting here feeling good about," Yeo said afterward. "That's for sure. You guys know me. I've never done that, pulled a goalie after two goals ... but I just felt it was what we needed."

In a 48-game season in which every point is crucial, Yeo's quick hook might have left him feeling bad but it made him look like a very wise man.

Backstrom, who made 19 saves in a 3-2 victory over Columbus on Tuesday night, stopped all 28 shots he faced in the final 58:15 and the Wild rallied from a 2-1 deficit to record a 3-2 shootout win over the previously unbeaten Chicago Blackhawks at Xcel Energy Center.

"In some ways it's easier," Backstrom said of coming off the bench in such quick fashion. "You don't really have time to think. You have to get out there and try to get into the game. But on the other hand, physically it's pretty tough. You have to get prepared physically and mentally. But it's part of the game, it's part of the goalie's job. You have to be ready. You never know what's going to happen."

What happened Wednesday is that Backstrom helped to hold the Wild in the game while they struggled to get shots.

Minnesota held a 15-7 advantage in shots after the first period, but the Blackhawks outshot the Wild 25-10 over the final two periods and in overtime. Backstrom stopped 11 shots in the third period, while the Wild had only two.

There were times it was clear Chicago was the more talented team, especially when it came to puck possession, but that did not matter to Backstrom.

He made a key save on Patrick Kane with the Blackhawks on a third-period power play and another on Jonathan Toews with just over five minutes to go. Backstrom's play was the all more important because he had not yet been at his best this season.

"(Backstrom) played very well and we needed that," Wild winger Zach Parise said. "He came in and we did what we needed him to do. That was good."

Added Yeo: "(Backstrom) was there for us."

Backstrom certainly was there for the Wild in the shootout, the team's first of the season, as he stopped Kane and then had Patrick Sharp miss the net after Backstrom had given up a goal to Toews. Parise and Matt Cullen scored for the Wild against Chicago goalie Corey Crawford in the shootout.

"I felt good, but it's team work," Backstrom said. "I think the guys in front of me, even if (the Blackhawks) got some shots, they did a great job of eliminating the second and third chances, the passes across. (Chicago is) a very talented team, it's a dangerous team. But I think in our zone, even when we spent more time there than we wanted to do, we did a good job."

Harding had gotten the start against the Blackhawks for two reasons.

One, Yeo wanted to get Backstrom a rest after he had started on Sunday in St. Louis and Tuesday against the Blue Jackets, and two, Harding had been 3-0-0 at Xcel Energy Center against the Blackhawks. He had a .984 save percentage and a 0.40 goals-against average in those games, stopping 62 of 63 shots with a shutout.

But it quickly became clear that Harding's previous success wasn't going to carry over to Wednesday night. Chicago was the fresher team, having spent the previous evening resting in St. Paul while the Wild played Columbus. The Hawks also entered with an NHL-best 12 points and a 6-0-0 record, including 4-0-0 on the road.

Cullen gave the Wild a 1-0 lead only 1:30 into the game when he scored his first of the season, but the Blackhawks answered with goals by Andrew Shaw at 5:15 and Toews at 6:45. Toews' goal was especially disturbing because it came on a soft shot from the left wing side and beat Harding low.

That was all Yeo had to see to determine that a change was necessary.

If this had been the Wild's seventh game of the normal 82-game schedule, odds are good Harding would have been left in to overcome his struggles. But this is anything but a normal season and Yeo knows that.

That doesn't mean he didn't feel bad afterward.

Anytime Harding struggles this season, the fact he has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis is going to come up. Harding has vowed to play despite battling the autoimmune disease in which the body randomly attacks and eats away the protective lining of the nerves and causes them to scar.

Harding provided a feel-good story of the early season when he stopped 24 Dallas shots en route to a 1-0 shutout victory in the Wild's second game. His second start last Friday did not go as well as the Wild lost 5-3 at Detroit.

Harding was not available to comment after Wednesday's game, but Yeo said he knew his goalie was "OK" despite the fact the two had not yet talked. Yeo also put some of the blame on himself for Harding's performance.

"(His struggles were) not because of anything bigger than," Yeo said before stopping. " ... Let's be fair to him. We haven't had very much practice time at all.

"We've had three games in four days and we didn't have a pregame skate (Wednesday). We were on the ice barely at all a couple of days ago when we did have practice and most of the time we were working d-zone coverage. I can't sit here and say that I feel really good that we gave him a real great chance to prepare either."

Harding will get more chances.

Backstrom, though, clearly gave the Wild the best chance to win on Wednesday.

"I think it's good for us," Backstrom said after the Wild improved to 4-2-1 and kept a one-point lead over Edmonton and Vancouver in the Northwest Division. "That's a team that won the Cup a couple of years ago. It's a playoff team every year. We're not a playoff team, we want to be a playoff team.

"You measure yourself against the best, you see what they do and we know there is a lot of hard work ahead of us. It gives us confidence that we can play against these guys, but there's still some areas we need to be better and we're going to work on that."

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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