It's not unusual these days to see public smooching in hockey arenas, as people eagerly pucker up for kiss-cams in rinks around the world. Rarely, though, do the players get in on the act, as Nino Niederreiter did in Friday's Game 4 victory over Chicago.
The object of the Wild winger's affection was goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. With about six minutes left in the game — and with the Wild holding a 3-2 lead, thanks to Niederreiter's second-period goal — Blackhawks forward Jeremy Morin got open in front of the net and snared a quick pass from behind the goal line. Bryzgalov blocked Morin's first shot with his pad, then got his glove on Morin's follow-up.
Niederreiter, swept up in the emotion of the moment, leaned in and gave Bryzgalov two kisses on the top of his helmet — one for each save that helped preserve a lead en route to a 4-2 triumph. "I was just so happy,'' Niederreiter said Saturday, still laughing at his impulsive gesture. "It just happened so quickly. I was just being thankful, I guess.''
Wild coach Mike Yeo expressed the same sentiments in a more reserved fashion. Time after time in the playoffs, in pressure-filled situations, his team has answered with poise and power. Bryzgalov contributed to that trend in Game 4 with big saves on Morin and on a second-period breakaway by Patrick Sharp.
His fine performances in a pair of victories at Xcel Energy Center have inflated Bryzgalov's self-assurance, Yeo said, and his modesty has earned the kind of admiration that Niederreiter expressed so effusively.
"Getting that [Game 3] win was big for his confidence, and I think he showed it [Friday],'' Yeo said. "What I like about [Bryzgalov] right now is he's just part of the team. He's doing everything he can for his teammates. After the last game, I'm reading his quotes, and all he does is praise his teammates. All he does is talk about what a great job they're doing in front of him. That makes us want to play harder for him.''
The on-ice kiss, by the way, was not the first for Niederreiter. He also planted one on Jared Spurgeon after the defenseman's tying goal in Game7 of the Wild's first-round win over Colorado. "It's silly,'' Niederreiter said. "But you appreciate stuff like that, you know?''
Defenseman Keith Ballard and forward Matt Moulson will not accompany the Wild to Chicago for Sunday's Game 5. Yeo said Ballard is day-to-day because of an upper-body injury after being slammed hard into the boards by Blackhawks winger Brandon Bollig in Game 4. Moulson is nursing a lower-body injury and did not play Friday.
Ballard sat out the final 14 games of the regular season because of a groin injury and had just returned to the lineup in Game 3. He did not return after the hit by Bollig at 17 minutes, 13 seconds of the second period Friday.
Bollig, who was given a minor penalty for boarding, was suspended for two games after having a hearing with the NHL on Saturday.
Yeo had not decided who would fill Ballard's place in the lineup but said there was a "very good chance'' that Nate Prosser would return after sitting out the past two games.
Through 11 playoff games, 16 Wild players have scored goals, the most balanced scoring of any NHL team. Spurgeon leads the defensemen with three goals and also has two assists, drawing appreciation from Yeo for the way he has elevated his game in the playoffs.
In Game 4, he assisted on Niederreiter's game-winning goal and scored a power-play goal that stretched the Wild's lead to two goals early in the third period. Spurgeon also is second on the team in ice time, averaging 23:52 per game, and leads it with 22 blocked shots.
"As we've asked our team to get better, he's taken his game to another level,'' Yeo said. "He's got a great stick, he's very smart, he's a great skater and he's sneaky strong. Against a team like this, you need some offense from your defensemen; you need to create offense from secondary guys. If you're going to have any success, guys like that are usually stepping up.''