ST. PAUL—The unbeaten Blackhawks gave the Minnesota Wild a significant early season test of their upgraded team.They held up quite well, from the early goalie switch to the late-game fatigue.Matt Cullen scored 90 seconds into the game and again in a shootout to lift the Wild to a 3-2 victory on Wednesday, the first loss in seven games for the Blackhawks.
“Games like this are how you build confidence in what you’re doing as a team and start getting that belief that — you know what? — we can be a good team,” said Cullen, who was scoreless in the first six games. “It’s not just talk. It’s not just on paper. It’s getting some results.”
The Wild improved to 4-1 at home, enjoying significant production from their second and third lines for the second straight night after a slow start by anyone not named Zach Parise, Dany Heatley or Mikko Koivu. The first line scored 10 of their first 13 goals, until Tuesday’s win over Columbus.
“We’re not there yet by any means, but this team has shown that when we’re playing our game we can play with anybody. Scratch that: We can beat anybody,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We spent very little time tonight talking about Chicago. This game was about ourselves.”
Goals by Andrew Shaw and Jonathan Toews early in the first period prompted the Wild to pull goalie Josh Harding for Niklas Backstrom. But Cal Clutterbuck also scored for the Wild, and Backstrom stopped all 28 shots he saw to help his tired teammates get to overtime.
“We’re not a playoff team. We want to be a playoff team,” Backstrom said. “You measure yourself against the best. You see what they do. We know there’s a lot of hard work ahead of us, and for sure it gives us confidence you can play against these guys.”
Crawford, off to a sharp start in his third season as the primary goalie, made 23 saves as the Blackhawks started a season-long six-game road trip. They’ve played five straight one-goal games.
“That’s a great start, but the best thing about that is that we’re doing a great job of putting the last game behind us and just getting ready for the next one,” Toews said. “That’s what we’ve got to keep doing.”
After putting 15 shots on net in the first period, the Wild had six over the remainder of regulation. They had one last prime opportunity when Sharp was penalized for hooking with 2:05 left, but the Blackhawks squelched the Minnesota power play for the fourth time — and headed for overtime after the scoreless third period.The Wild had 83 seconds of a 5-on-3 late in the first period, but Crawford didn’t budge, blocking Bouchard’s attempt at a chip-in from the edge of the crease by diving almost all the way across the goal mouth. Then in the second, they sputtered through a power play so lifelessly the crowd booed as it expired.The Blackhawks came into the game second in the NHL in penalty killing behind Boston. They have given up just one goal in 27 attempts and none in 19 situations on the road.
“I thought we got better as the game went on,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I think in the first period we might’ve been fortunate to get ahead, but at the same time the second part of the game we were in there a lot more and we didn’t give up much. You go to a shootout, anything can happen.”
Yeo made the bold move of pulling Harding a mere 6 minutes, 45 seconds into the game. He faced only four shots. Harding, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during the lockout, had a 24-save shutout of Dallas on Jan. 20 but gave up five goals at Detroit last Friday.
“It’s not a decision I’m sitting here feeling good about,” Yeo said, adding: “I know that he’s OK. It’s not because of anything bigger. Let’s be fair to him. We haven’t had very much practice time at all.”
Backstrom didn’t need it, apparently.
“We’ve got to … take pucks to the net. Get some traffic,” Shaw said. “I didn’t think we did a good job of that, and that’s something we’re going to work on.”
NOTES—Wild D Tom Gilbert, who didn’t score and had just five assists in 20 games last season after his trade from Edmonton to Minnesota, has two goals and four assists in the last four games. He leads the Wild with 17 blocked shots….The Blackhawks don’t play at home again until Feb. 12 and will have 10 of their first 12 games on the road.