CHICAGO – If there was any thought that red-hot Josh Harding seized the reins as the Wild’s No. 1 during Niklas Backstrom’s eighth season with the club, the veteran goaltender had something to say about that Saturday night.
Making his first start in 18 nights because Harding is now sidelined with an injury, Backstrom was outstanding during a 33-save effort as the Wild, dispatched by the Chicago Blackhawks in five games during last year’s playoffs, knocked them off this time, 5-3.
Backstrom, whose 2013 playoffs consisted of five minutes of warmups at the United Center and a sports hernia, lasted through warmups and beyond this evening. He was tested early and often and stood tall with a series of brilliant saves, including seven on sniper Patrick Sharp.
“He made a save early in the game that made you think, just the way he made it and the way he looked, that he was in it,” coach Mike Yeo said. “He was going to be on it, and he was all night long.”
Jason Pominville, playing his 600th game, scored two goals off brilliant passes from linemate Mikael Granlund. Zach Parise, Kyle Brodziak and Justin Fontaine scored the other goals, and Ryan Suter had two assists for the 6-3-3 Wild, which has won three consecutive games.
The Wild, winners of four in a row at home, and the Blackhawks will complete the home-and-home series Monday in St. Paul.
“It’s a confidence booster,” Brodziak said.
The Wild, which had previously scored seven goals in five road games, spent much of the second period on its heels after Brodziak deflected Marco Scandella’s shot for a 2-0 Minnesota lead 61 seconds in.
At one point, after an eight-minute review, a Blackhawks goal was disallowed. It was ruled that Andrew Shaw scored off a high-stick and the Wild didn’t regain possession when defenseman Clayton Stoner accidentally knocked it over the goal line.
“That was the longest review I’ve seen in my career,” Pominville said.
Wild killer Bryan Bickell scored two minutes later anyway, but with the Wild in full-scale survival mode, Pominville sniped Granlund’s pass for a 3-1 lead with 2:18 left in the period.
“When you’ve got a guy that can shoot the puck like that and a guy that can distribute it like that, you’d sure like to think that eventually it’s going to pay off,” Yeo said.
Pominville cashed in again in the third after Granlund picked off Nick Leddy’s clear for a 4-1 lead.
“They definitely made a push and had some good zone time, good movements,” Pominville said. “But Backy made some unreal saves, couple point-blanks, a breakaway by Sharp. He kept us in there.”
The defending Stanley Cup champs entered with one regulation loss in 11 games and no regulation home losses in six.
“They’re a skilled team. They’re going to have their chances,” Backstrom said. “You have to find a way to be in the way of the puck.”
Backstrom’s early saves provided the cushion for Parise to give the Wild a 1-0 lead.
Parise sent a puck back to Suter on a faceoff and turned toward the net, and after Suter slid along the blue line and wristed a high shot at Corey Crawford, Parise tapped in the rebound for his sixth goal and fourth on the power play.
Minnesota has scored at least one power-play goal in nine of 12 games, although for the second time in four games, the Wild’s $34 million five-on-three unit of Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Parise, Suter and Pominville couldn’t score on a long two-man advantage in the second.
But the Wild’s penalty kill extinguished six of seven Chicago power plays, and Scandella and defense partner Nate Prosser were terrific. They were each plus-2.
“Tough in their defensive game, tough in their D-zone coverage, tough around the net,” Yeo said of the two defensemen. “I liked the way both guys executed and showed some real composure in their shifts.”