We’ve got ourselves a backup goalie controversy.
Obviously I say that tongue in cheek, but one night after Darcy Kuemper gave up three against Buffalo, Niklas Backstrom was awesome tonight in his first start since Jan. 13 and his first start since offseason elbow surgery.
I was worried there was a bad omen during the national anthem when one of the equipment guys threw Backstrom his water bottle. The thing basically exploded on the ice and caused a huge puddle of water.
But I was wrong.
Playing against a very quality lineup put forth by Winnipeg, Backstrom posted a 28-save shutout in the Wild’s 1-0 overtime exhibition win tonight. Not a bad initial showing for Backstrom after not giving up a goal in two scrimmages (1 ½ games) this past weekend (other than one 3-on-3 goal).
Matt Dumba, the kid who scored that exciting overtime winner late last season in Nashville off a couple sensational plays by Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, scored with 47.4 seconds left of 3-on-3 play tonight.
Charlie Coyle and Justin Fontaine got the assists, with Fontaine threading the needle with a pass by Alexander Burmistrov in the right circle to put Dumba in alone. From the backdoor, Dumba roofed the winner over top of Connor Hellebuyck. The goalie had just robbed Tyler Graovac on a one-timer the shift before. Ondrej Pavelec played two periods of spotless hockey and made a bunch of good saves on guys like Graovac, Coyle, Dumba and Erik Haula.
Backstrom stopped all 25 shots he faced in regulation, including Thomas Raffl on a breakaway and Blake Wheeler with an outstretched right pad. In OT, he stoned Mark Scheifele on a breakaway and absolutely robbed Mathieu Perreault from point-blank range to stun the MTS Centre. Remember back when Perreault played for Anaheim, he scored an OT winner against Backstrom just seconds from a shootout.
“It’s fun to play,” Backstrom said. “That’s why you practice and work hard, to be out there with the guys and compete.”
Currently, the Wild may have to start the season with three goalies unless GM Chuck Fletcher can make a trade.
“I can’t really control what’s going to happen,” Backstrom said.
Whatever happens, coach Mike Yeo was impressed by his play.
“He was great. All game long, he looked very controlled. Some shutouts are made by not stopping a ton of quality chances, but this one he made a lot of real key saves through the course of the night,” Yeo said.
Backstrom said the shutout will keep him hungry, and he called it a “good start” as he tries to rediscover timing, rhythm, seeing pucks and reading plays.
Backstrom, who always has a sense of humor, had a good line about the end-to-end 3-on-3: “Fans love it, I don’t know if the coaches love it, players probably love it and goalies hate it.”
Check out Wednesday’s paper: I wrote a feature on Graovac, who was much better tonight, here and did a notebook lead on Gustav Olofsson’s first preseason game since playing his only game of last season on Oct. 10.
Yeo said the game “was a much better effort than we saw last night, that’s for sure.”
On Olofsson, Yeo said, “Probably the only reason we’re not talking about him making our team is we know he needs to play some hockey right now. Right through Traverse City, right through the scrimmages, and through tonight, all he’s done is help himself. He’s looking like he’s going to be a real solid player.”
On Graovac (three shots, won 7 of 11 faceoffs), Mike Reilly and Kurtis Gabriel, the only three players who were in the Buffalo game that also played tonight, Yeo said, “All three, the message was obviously last night was disappointing, but what we’re looking for is progression in all of them. I gave them a chance to respond tonight, and I think they all raised their game. [Graovac] in particular, I’m looking for a progression from game to game.”
Yeo also liked Brett Bulmer’s game a lot, thought Jordan Schroeder battled and competed and said Marc Hagel brought energy and competitiveness even though he only played 9:38.
If you didn’t read my Monday story on Thomas Vanek, give it a read here. It’s certainly a talker. Tonight, Vanek was certainly a passer. He had no shots and tried to set up Coyle, Dumba and Graovac. All were great chances, but all were also chances for Vanek, the goal scorer, to shoot.
Yeo joked of Vanek and Coyle, in part because I kind of put the words in his mouth, “They’re just going to keep passing to each other now.”
Yeo said, “Our game right now does not look like it will look in Game 1 and Game 1 it won’t look like it is in Game 10.” He said it’s a process now to get it as close to the top of their game as they can. He said there’s a lot of work to be done.
“You see a lot of areas and details of our game are not even close to where we need them to be. Not to say we’re way behind. This is where you expect to be this time of [camp]. It’s all about getting summer habits out” because in summer hockey, there’s no detail or “sense of purpose when you don’t have the puck. That’s why games and this experience is so important.”
On Dumba’s overall game (he didn’t play bad at all, but he can be much better; one shift he ices the puck twice), Yeo said: “It’s not where he’s going to be a week from now and two weeks from now. That’s Dums. He made a lot of really good plays. If you think back to even this time last year, we probably would have been pretty happy with that game. But that’s what he’s done. He’s raised the bar so high. I thought he played a pretty good game, but given what we know now of what he’s capable of, it’s probably an OK game for him.”
Dumba said as good as the OT winner felt, it’s preseason and there are a “lot of areas of improvement for me. I did do some stuff good and I’ll build on that.” But he said it’s not where he wants to be when the regular season starts and “moving forward I just want to grow and get better.”
Olofsson said the first period took some time to get timing, but he was happy with his play for the most part, especially at this pace.
“Now’s the real deal,” he said. “It’s a lot more exciting. All the preparation and all the work’s behind you, and now it’s time to go and prove what you’ve got.”
That’s it for me. Rachel Blount is covering practice for me Wednesday as I work ahead and get some errands done before heading to Columbus on Thursday. Devan Dubnyk will make his preseason debut Thursday at the Blue Jackets behind a fairly young lineup. I’d assume Kuemper starts in his hometown of Saskatoon on Saturday and then on Sunday against Winnipeg and Oct. 1 against Buffalo, I’d assume the Wild plays lineups very close to its team.
Talk to you later.