WINNIPEG, MANITOBA – Niklas Backstrom had never had a concussion before, but the Wild goalie knew enough about head injuries to take nothing for granted. After practicing with his team Friday for the first time in 10 days, Backstrom said he felt good, but he couldn’t predict what the next day might bring.
It’s doubtful that anyone could have envisioned the strange scenario that unfolded at MTS Centre on Saturday. About halfway through the Wild’s warmup before its game against Winnipeg, goalie Josh Harding left the ice with a leg injury. “Some of the guys told me to get into the net,” said Backstrom, who was hurt on Nov. 13 and had played 11 minutes this month. “I didn’t really know what happened. You just try to prepare yourself to be ready.”
With Harding in the trainer’s room and backup Darcy Kuemper at the airport, Backstrom proved he was more than ready in a 3-2 shootout victory. His play kept the Wild stable through a dreadful first period and allowed it to find its groove as it improved to 9-1-1 in November.
Against the physical, speedy and inspired Jets, Backstrom stopped 37 of 39 shots, and a patchwork lineup twice erased one- goal deficits in giving the Wild its sixth victory in its past seven games.
Mikael Granlund also was a surprise scratch because of an upper-body injury. That forced the Wild to start seven defensemen, and after the sluggish start, coach Mike Yeo was constantly juggling his lines.
Despite all that, the Wild prevailed, defeating Winnipeg for the third time in three games this season. While Yeo praised his entire team for sticking with it on a day he called “bizarre,” he saved his biggest compliments for Backstrom.
“He’s the difference in the game for us,” Yeo said. “I give our players a great deal of credit for dealing with the adversity of what happened at the beginning of the game. It’s a little easier to deal with it when you see your goalie go out and play the way he was. He kept us in it and gave us a chance to find our game.”
Yeo did not have an update on Harding, who was injured during the warmup, but said he assumes the goalie’s status is day-to-day. He found out Harding could not play as the team was about to take the ice, and Kuemper was rushed back from the airport in time for the final two periods.
Backstrom said that getting a serious test as soon as the puck dropped was probably best. That way, he didn’t have any time to consider the situation. Backstrom sustained the concussion when he was hit by Toronto’s Nazem Kadri and had been sidelined for four games, prohibited even from skating until early last week.
The Wild desperately needed him in the first period. The Jets piled up a 14-3 advantage in shots on goal — including several choice chances — and held the Wild without a shot for more than 13 minutes. The Wild also was outhit 16-3 and won only five of 16 faceoffs in the period.
Backstrom stopped the first 22 shots he faced before Michael Frolik swept in a rebound at 13 minutes, 7 seconds of the second period. Nino Niederreiter — elevated to the top line in the third period after poor play limited him to seven shifts in the first 40 minutes — rewarded Yeo’s faith by evening the score, going to the net to tuck in a rebound at 3:21 of the third.
Matt Halischuk put the Jets back in the lead at 5:35. But the Wild, which got stronger as the game progressed, tied it again when Zach Parise got the team’s first shorthanded goal of the season at 15:05. Backstrom was stout in the shootout as well, allowing a single goal as Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle scored.
“It wasn’t pretty, and they’re not all going to be,” Parise said. “If it weren’t for Backstrom, it could have gotten out of control in a hurry. He made some unbelievable saves.”