ST. PAUL, Minn. — With 82 games and six months in the regular season, NHL coaches don’t often overemphasize any of them.
With three days at home to prepare for the Anaheim Ducks, though, Jacques Lemaire made sure the Minnesota Wild were ready for this.
Andrew Brunette and Mikko Koivu scored over the first two periods, and All-Star Niklas Backstrom made them stand with his sixth shutout of the season to lead the Wild past the Ducks 3-0 on Wednesday night.
“We started the very first day talking about them,” Lemaire said. “This is not an easy team to play against. They’re strong on the puck. … You can’t let down a bit against that team.”
Well, there was more to it than that.
The Wild picked up an important two points, without letting the Ducks take one, in the crazy-competitive Western Conference playoff race. Anaheim is in fifth place with 57 points, and Minnesota moved into a sixth-place tie with Dallas with 55 points. But four other teams have 53 points or more, setting up a scrappy final two months for those precious last spots in the postseason.
Plus, the Wild have been uncharacteristically inconsistent at home, with a 15-9-3 record. This started a stretch on the schedule where seven out of eight games are at Xcel Energy Center, and all but one of those contests are against teams from the West.
“We can’t be satisfied, because the standings probably will be completely different tomorrow night,” Backstrom said.
He made 34 saves, several requiring quick reactions from close in while the Ducks outshot the Wild 33-18 over the final 2½ periods. Anaheim’s Chris Kunitz had a short-handed breakaway midway through the third period, but Backstrom denied him with his left pad. The Ducks went 0-for-5 on the power play against the league’s second-ranked penalty kill.
“You have a better chance to win,” Backstrom deadpanned, “when the other team doesn’t score a goal.”
Indeed, and when the Wild can get the first goal — they’re 20-6 this season when they do — they gain confidence. Brunette took the puck out of the corner on a first-period power play and kept trying to jam it past Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller, who eventually let it past him.
Mikko Koivu’s second-period goal, fed by a behind-the-net pass from fellow Finn Antti Miettinen, gave Minnesota a comfortable lead. Koivu also assisted on Brunette’s goal, giving him a career-high 35 for the season. Pierre-Marc Bouchard had an assist and an empty-net goal in the final minute.
Since New Year’s Eve, the Wild are 9-5-1 but playing with more consistency at both ends than during a dismal December.
“I think we’re getting better every night, and that’s the way it should be,” Backstrom said.
The Ducks were blanked for the third time this season and the first time in 20 games — including playoffs — in St. Paul. Second-leading scorer Corey Perry, who had three goals in Anaheim’s first two victories over the Wild this season, had only two shots in the first two periods.
“Our execution was really, I would say, off,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “We just couldn’t seem to do anything with the puck, and we got frustrated. I didn’t think we really got involved in the game until the third period. … We can’t afford a performance like we had tonight, in this situation.”
Carlyle, too, pointed out the urgency of the race even though the playoffs are more than two months away.
“It’s only going to get tigther, and these two points were too important for us to pass up,” he said. “It’s just disturbing from the standpoint of how little we were into the game.”
The Ducks won here 3-0 on Jan. 17, and Hiller made 30 saves that night.
“It’s too bad we can’t start like we play in the third,” Hiller said. “We’re always down one goal after the second period and we try to make it up in the third, but in this league that’s not easy. We should probably think about having a better start.”
Notes: Wild RW Owen Nolan, who has missed 19 games this season
with various injuries, was scratched with muscle spasms in his upper body. He has 12 goals and nine assists in 31 games. … Newly acquired Ducks RW Mike Brown, who came in a trade with Vancouver on Tuesday, was scratched. So was C Brendan Morrison, for the second straight game. He’s on a 16-game scoreless streak. … Ducks C Samuel Pahlsson has been placed on injured reserve. He’s fighting an illness. … Backstrom’s six shutouts are a Wild season record.