PITTSBURGH – “We have complete faith in Backy” was the recurring mantra from the Wild on Thursday morning.
The team was set to begin a minimum of three games without its first-half backbone, Josh Harding, as he alters his treatment for multiple sclerosis. Team officials reminded all that Niklas Backstrom has won 186 games.
Yet after the buildup and votes of confidence, Backstrom opened Thursday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins by fumbling two pucks and giving up a goal 49 seconds in.
The Wild responded by skating through 59 minutes of uninspired hockey during what coach Mike Yeo termed a “maddening” performance. The Wild was trounced 5-2 by an allegedly tired, depleted Penguins team that was missing nine players, including five top-six defensemen and superstar Evgeni Malkin.
“I want to see him win, but this game shouldn’t be about Nik Backstrom,” Yeo said. “It’s easy to pick this out as a story in the game, but we stunk tonight. It’s not all on him. I’m not going to say he was nearly good enough, but there were 19 other guys wearing a Wild uniform tonight that weren’t either.”
Despite the laundry list of sidelined players, the Penguins have won six in a row overall, 11 of their past 12 and nine in a row at home. The Wild, which hasn’t won in regulation on the road since Nov. 20, is 1-5-1 in its past seven road games with seven goals scored.
Backstrom went the distance. Yeo didn’t even look at backup Johan Gustafsson when Matt Niskanen whistled a puck from 50 feet out to make it 3-0. And he didn’t move a muscle when Sidney Crosby fed Chris Kunitz with a sick pass to make it 4-0.
Yeo said he felt the seldom-used former No. 1 goalie needed to “fight through it.”
The Wild didn’t show any fight until it trailed by four goals. Jason Pominville and Dany Heatley scored, but even then, Yeo said it was “smoke and mirrors” because the Wild was being outworked all over the ice.
Down 4-2, the Wild drew a 5-on-3 for 1 minute, 46 seconds. Not only did the Wild fail to score on backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff, but Jonas Brodin hooked Olli Maatta as he came out of the penalty box on a breakaway. Maatta was awarded a penalty shot, and the 19-year-old defenseman beat Backstrom.
So instead of cutting the deficit to 4-3 or tying a game Yeo admitted the Wild had no right to even be in, Minnesota fell behind 5-2 on a shorthanded penalty-shot goal. It was an unbelievable sequence of events.
“You just have to score on those,” said captain Mikko Koivu, a minus-3 along with Zach Parise.
It was the sixth time in six 5-on-3s this season the Wild did not score.
“We have to address it. We have to change something,” Yeo said.
It was a dagger given up by Backstrom, but it wasn’t as bad as the first goal. In a league where it’s so hard to score goals, and on a team where it’s almost impossible some nights (22 goals the past 14 games), the first goal was deflating.
Backstrom couldn’t catch Maatta’s shot. He then couldn’t hang on to a harmless-looking bat at the rebound by Crosby. A scramble ensued and Kunitz scored less than a minute in.
Backstrom said he should have hung onto the puck, “but there’s a lot of hockey left.”
It looked like the goal caused an ensuing stupor for two periods.
“We’ve got to be stronger than that. I’m not going to accept that as an excuse,” Yeo said.
Added Kyle Brodziak: “You can’t get rattled and let it change the course of the whole game. We’ve got to learn to deal with those situations better. This is a frustrating one. Everyone felt like we were ready. Clearly we weren’t. We just couldn’t get anything going.”