Well, that was certainly interesting, as we like to say in Minnesota. The Wild's 3-2 shootout win over Winnipeg had a little bit of everything. Mystery goalie injuries! Quick escapes from the Winnipeg airport! Leaden performances turned into gold!
The one thing it didn't have: Mike Russo. He'll be back tomorrow to pick up the team in St. Louis, where it finishes the four-game road trip Monday.
The -10 temperatures notwithstanding, this was quite an entertaining game to drop in on. When Josh Harding skated to the bench during warmups, it looked like he might have an equipment issue. Then Niklas Backstrom leads the Wild onto the ice at MTS Centre, and it's evident it is something more serious. Coach Mike Yeo said after the game that Harding has a lower-body injury, presumably a leg. Yeo anticipates it is a day-to-day type of injury, though he isn't certain.
So Backstrom gets the no-notice start after being cleared for full practice only one day before. He said afterward--in his usual deadpan manner--that it was "fun'' to get hit by 14 pucks in the first period as his teammates flailed away. Getting pushed out on stage without warning actually was an advantage, he figured, after missing four games because of a concussion (and being prevented from even skating until last Monday or Tuesday). "You don't really have much time to think,'' he said. "You just go out and play and get into the game. It's good to get shots and feel the puck right away.''
Backstrom stopped 37 of 39 shots, and the two goals he gave up were on rebounds. (The first came after a Matt Halischuk shot hit him and went airborne, then fell into the crease, where Michael Frolik knocked it in as the Wild failed to clear the rebound; the second came when Halischuk banged a shot off Backstrom and the puck came right back to him.) He had cautioned Friday that even though he felt good, he knew that meant nothing in the realm of head injuries, when good days can turn into bad ones for no forseeable reason. He certainly didn't show any lingering effects Saturday.
Darcy Kuemper looked so odd sitting on a bar stool behind the glass by the Wild tunnel, in his ball cap and pads. He said he got heckled a little by the fans immediately behind and beside him. He was amazed at how quickly the Wild team bus got to the airport to retrieve him before he could get on the plane to the Twin Cities (and to his car, which he then planned to drive to Iowa) and how efficiently the airport and Delta staff got him and his gear back through customs.
Hockey players are such creatures of habit that you figure this wacky sequence of events would have thrown the Wild completely off its game. Backstrom gave them time to pull it together after that awful first period. Lots of giveaways, missed shots, off-target passes ... the Jets just totally outplayed them. As Zach Parise said, "we could have been down three, four, five-nothing after the first period. We were lucky to get out of there 0-0.''
Interesting choice by Yeo to yank Nino Niederreiter out of the doghouse and promote him to the penthouse in the third period. Through two periods, Niederreiter played seven shifts (6:29 of ice time) and had one shot, two giveaways and no hits. Yeo, who moved players around throughout the game because Mikael Granlund was a late scratch with an upper-body injury, decided to give him a shot in the third period with Parise and Mikko Koivu. Niederreiter went to the net and plucked the rebound of Marco Scandella's shot off the pads of Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec, then tucked it in to tie the score 1-1.
"I wanted to give (Niederreiter) a chance,'' Yeo said. "We didn’t put him out there much to try to get his attention. I give him a lot of credit. Everyone has bad shifts or bad stretches or whatever; it's always how you bounce back. We wanted to give him a chance to see how he responded with those guys. We thought having a big body who could get to the net, the way he did for the goal, could help, could benefit those guys.
"He's a young kid. His first two periods weren't great. With young kids, they go with the wave of the rest of the group. As the rest of the group picked it up, he was able to pick it up, too.''
Ryan Suter was strong as usual, starting the play that led to Parise's shorthanded goal that tied the score 2-2. Parise had a goal and an assist, five shots, was plus-2 and demonstrated the kind of leadership the Wild needed to drag itself out of the dumpster in the first period. Koivu netted a slick backhander in the shootout, followed by Charlie Coyle's beauty.
Yeo was clearly proud that his team didn't cave under the weight of all the weird circumstances. "I spent a lot of time before the game trying to figure out lineup combinations and how to get people back from the airport,'' he said. "But you've got to deal with that type of adversity, and our guys did.
"You play 82 games, and they can't all be a work of art. There are going to be some times where you draw it up the way you want it to happen, and you go out and do it. There are going to be other times where things are going to happen, and you're going to have to deal with it. You're going to have to find a different way to get a win. I give our guys credit for staying in the game and (Backstrom) a lot of credit for keeping us in the game.''
As for the opposition, this is not going to fly well with Jets fans. This streaky bunch is now winless in its past four--after winning the previous four in a row--and finished a three-game homestand 0-1-2. Friday, some players expressed frustration, saying everyone was not giving his all. The effort was not lacking Saturday, but one point isn't going to make them feel any better--particularly after falling to 0-2-1 this season against their division rival.
That's it from the 'Peg. Stay warm!