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Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Backstrom bails out Wild

On a night that saw seven of the 12 NHL teams in action fire more than 35 shots on net, Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom's nearly routine 24 saves in a 2-1 shootout victory over the Penguins stood out as the best.

Not that holding one of the most dangerous offenses to one goal is routine. Backstrom is making a routine out of frustrating opponents, as he has allowed just six goals in the past five games (4-1).

Niklas Backstrom
Niklas Backstrom has suddenly become a force in shootouts this season.
"Our goalie was great," Wild coach Jacques Lemaire told The Associated Press. "I think he's the one that gave us the two points."

Of course, the tight-checking Wild helped a lot, especially by stopping all four of Pittsburgh's power-play attempts to improve the league's best penalty-killing mark to 93.8 percent and lower their NHL-best goals-against average to 1.94.

But the Wild wouldn't be leading the Northwest Division without Backstrom, who is second in victories (11), fourth in GAA (1.92) and third in save percentage (.936) in 15 games.

Backstrom's performance is more impressive considering that the Wild are scoring just 2.44 goals per game (26th in the NHL). Minnesota has 15 goals in its past eight games.

Playing in such tight games hasn't fazed the 30-year-old Finnish goalie, who is now 3-0 in shootouts and hasn't allowed a goal in eight attempts this season after stopping Sidney Crosby, Petr Sykora and Alex Goligoski (why go with NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin when you have Goligoski?) in the shootout Tuesday night at Pittsburgh.

Backstrom, who is 15-3-1 in the past 19 games dating back to last season, was 1-6 in shootouts last season.

It can't hurt that the 30-year-old is in a contract year and can become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

Ice chips

Pittsburgh backup goalie Dany Sabourin might have beaten Backstrom if it hadn't been for a weird goal credited to Mikko Koivu that sneaked through his pads after a faceoff. Sabourin stopped 24 shots and allowed Marek Zidlicky's shootout goal. Marc-Andre Fleury is day-to-day with an undisclosed lower-body injury that the training staff is taking cautiously, so Sabourin might be worth playing Thursday against the Thrashers or Saturday against the Canucks, for whom he played in 2006-07. … Enigmatic Hurricanes forward Sergei Samsonov scored his first goal in 19 games in a 2-1 victory over the Canadiens. … Now the Hurricanes need to get star center Eric Staal out of a slump that has seen him notch just one goal in 12 games and go eight in a row without a marker. … Carey Price did all he could to steal the game, stopping 46 shots, but the Canadiens fell to 2-4-1 in their past seven games. … Edmonton's 7-2 victory over Columbus might be the start of a breakout for some Oilers. Shawn Horcoff had a goal and two assists, Andrew Cogliano had a goal and an assist and Sam Gagner had two assists. Ales Hemsky's three assists give him 20 points in 19 games and he is available in a surprising 6.5 percent of leagues. Edmonton's Dustin Penner also scored in his return to the lineup after being a healthy scratch for the past two games because of a lack of competitiveness. … At the opposite end of the goalie spectrum from Backstrom, Columbus' Pascal Leclaire allowed seven goals on 19 shots by Edmonton. … One bright spot for the Blue Jackets continues to be Derick Brassard. The rookie center extended his points streak to five games with two assists that improved his club scoring lead to 19 points. His play has even persuaded coach Ken Hitchcock to move him up to the top line with Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius. … Blackhawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin won for the first time in three games by stopping 36 shots -- and two in the shootout -- during Chicago's 3-2 victory over Phoenix. The Bulin Wall (5-1-4 with a 2.33 goals-against average and .924 save percentage) is owned in just a little more than half of ESPN leagues even though he continues to outplay teammate Cristobal Huet, who is owned in 95.9 percent. … Panthers defenseman Bryan McCabe had two goals and an assist and now has six points in seven games this season. All of his three goals have come against the Lightning, however. … Radim Vrbata, freed from the doghouse after Barry Melrose's firing, scored his first goal in 34 games. … Bad news for owners of Panthers forward Cory Stillman, who didn't play because of concussion-related symptoms. He missed three games after suffering a concussion Nov. 2, but had returned for two games before Tuesday.