Northwest: Canucks' Great Dane

Friday, 31.10.2008 / 12:39 PM / Features
By Roger Phillips
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Northwest: Canucks\' Great Dane
A strong start by the Minnesota Wild have been based on excellent penalty killing and the tireless play of Nicklas Backstrom in goal.
The Minnesota Wild weren't quite perfect through Wednesday's 4-2 loss to Dallas. But they were pretty close.

Despite the loss, the Wild have a 6-1-1 record, and became the last team to lose in regulation.

And the Wild were near perfect in one respect. Minnesota faced 27 power plays in the first 8 games and killed 26 off.

Obviously, the penalty killing has been one of the biggest factors in the Wild's quick start. Against a potent Blackhawks attack in Monday's 3-2 victory, the Wild killed 67 seconds of a 5-on-3 Chicago power play.

Another major factor has been the rock-solid play of goalie Nicklas Backstrom, who played every minute of Minnesota's first 7 games before surrendering time to Josh Harding after the first period of the loss to Dallas.

"I can see the puck really good now," Backstrom told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "The guys are helping me a lot. They are blocking shots and making me see the pucks, and if I leave a rebound, they're clearing it."

Backstrom was 13-0-5 in his past 18 regular-season decisions after Monday's win, and has a 1.97 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage this season.

"The less you think out there the better it is on the play," Backstrom told the Canadian Press. "You don't want to start to think. I don't mean I'm stupid or like that, you know? I just want to … go out there and have fun and rely on my body that I'm making the right plays."

Wild coach Jacques Lemaire has not said when backup goalie Josh Harding might get a chance to play. But it might be a good idea for Harding to remain patient.

Prust punches one home -- When you look at the statistics of Flames rookie forward Brandon Prust, 1 number jumps out at you.
It's not the goals. It's not the assists. It's the penalty minutes.

The 24-year-old left wing had a combined 443 penalty minutes in his final 2 years of junior hockey. He had 753 more in his first 3 seasons in the minors.

You get the picture.

Two years ago, Prust had no points and 25 minutes in 10 games with the Flames. This season, he had 27 penalty minutes in his first 6 games.

But something else happened over the weekend. The 6-foot, 195-pound Prust scored his first NHL goal. The first-period goal proved to be the game-winner in a 4-1 victory at Phoenix.

Prust told the Calgary Herald he was looking forward to sending the puck home to London, Ontario.

"My dad's got a nice sports room at the house," Prust told the Herald. "Lots of sports memorabilia, lots of my past accomplishments up there, so it'll be right up there, for sure."

Coaches and teammates were almost as pleased for Prust as he was for himself.

"The team was really happy because he's been so involved physically for us," coach Mike Keenan told the Herald.

Marian who? -- The Wild are winning without ostensibly their best player. Or maybe he is not the Wild's best player.

While Marian Gaborik nurses a groin injury and is immersed in a contract controversy, the Wild have been getting outstanding production from 25-year-old Finnish center Mikko Koivu, who has scored just 1 goal, but is among the league leaders with 12 assists.

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Barry Melrose went so far as to call Koivu one of the 5 best young players in the NHL, a daunting combination of size (6-foot-2, 207 pounds) and speed.

Koivu gives much credit to retired Wild forward Wes Walz for his development and that of Minnesota's other young players.

"Walzie's taught us the rules and how to handle different things, and we respect that and we want to keep that on this team as long as we're here," Koivu said of Walz, now a Tampa Bay assistant coach. "We owe it to guys like Walzie to keep (the tradition) they helped create. And when things went wrong, it was always Walzie stepping up and saying and doing things -- on the ice and off, before and after practice. He taught us well."

Reality check -- The Oilers got off to a 4-0 start, but have quickly faded since then. They were blanked in a 1-0 overtime loss on home ice against Boston Monday night, and only the 35 saves of goalie Dwayne Roloson allowed the Oilers to gain a point in the standings.

Speaking of Roloson, it appears there may be a goaltending controversy in Edmonton, after all. Mathieu Garon looked sharp in the first couple games and appeared to be the clear starter. But he was only so-so in a couple recent games.

Unlike Minnesota, where Backstrom has played every minute, the Oilers have used 3 goalies. Garon is 3-2 in five starts, Roloson is 0-1-1, and Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers is 1-0.

The biggest problem for the Oilers since the 4-0 start has not been goaltending, but offense. They've scored 4 goals in 4 games (0-3-1) heading into Thursday's game at Nashville. And that game is the start of a 7-game road trip. The Oilers have lost their last 3 road games.

Budding Budaj -- The top 2 stars in the NHL the past week were Calgary's Jarome Iginla and Colorado's Peter Budaj. The former was no surprise. You expect that from Iginla.

The big news was Budaj. After a shaky start to this season, there was some thought that Colorado might be in the market for a goaltending upgrade. At least for right now, however, Budaj seems to have silenced the critics.

Budaj was 3-0 with a 1.62 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage last week.

After one of his recent wins, Budaj told the Rocky Mountain News, "I felt great. I was seeing the puck good and I didn't allow many rebounds, which is good. Whenever I did, the guys were in front of me to clear it out. Definitely, I feel better than I did at the start of the season. Obviously, I can play better and better, so, hopefully, I'm going to keep improving."

Budaj's hot streak ended Tuesday night. He allowed 3 goals in 30 shots in a 3-0 loss to the Flames. The resurgent Kiprusoff picked up a 22-save shutout for Calgary.

Great Dane for Canucks

Think of Scandinavian hockey players and your mind mainly focuses on Sweden and Finland. But Canucks right wing Jannik Hansen is bringing at least a little attention to Denmark.

Hansen scored 2 goals in the Canucks' 6-3 win over the Oilers over the weekend. Reportedly, Hansen is the first player from Denmark ever to score 2 goals in a game.

"It's not something you expect to do," Hansen told reporters. "But it was a huge win for the team and its fans."

Hansen, a 22-year-old native of Herlev, Denmark, is a 6-foot-1, 201-pound forward chosen by the Canucks with the 287th selection in the 2004 draft. He appeared in his first 5 NHL games last season, but did not produce a point.

Considering he was a ninth-round afterthought of a draft choice 4 years ago, Hansen isn't taking anything for granted despite his solid start this year.

"I can't allow myself to get comfortable anywhere," Hansen told the Vancouver Province. "It's a performance sport. If you don't perform, there's another guy who is ready in line and we saw how competitive the camp was this year and how many guys are knocking on the door.

"I was just one of them. It's a matter of proving it every day that you want to be here, you belong out there and that you're not a liability."

Canucks coach Alain Vigneault is a believer.

"Jannik had a good game and there's good speed there and deceptive moves," Vigneault told the Province. "He's just a young man and with more ice (time), he'll get better."