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Officially, Wild backup goaltender Darcy Kuemper got the first star of last night’s Wild victory over the LA Kings, with Wild wing Nino Niederreiter getting the game’s second star. In reality, they both should’ve shared star of the game billing because they were the reason the Wild won.

Kuemper stopped 39 of the 40 shots he faced in regulation and overtime before shutting out the Kings in the shootout. After the Kings scored their only goal of the night, Nino Niederreiter tied the game with a pretty goal from Jason Pominville and Mikhael Granlund:

Kumper shut the Kings out the rest of the way, showing supreme confidence in the shootout while stopping the Kings’ 4 shooters cold. Jonathan Quick was magnificent between the pipes for LA, too. Unfortunately for the Kings, he just couldn’t stop Niederreiter when it mattered most.

Niederreiter’s game-winning goal in the shootout was magnificent, too. Niederreiter brought the puck in methodically before forcing Quick to commit one way or the other. When Quick committed, Niederreiter shifted the puck to his forehand before lifting the puck into the empty net. Quick knew he was beat as he desperately flailed in his attempt to stop Niederreiter’s shot.

While the Kings outshot the Wild, the Wild played a physical, fast-paced game. Mainly relying on totally restructured forward lines thanks to injuries to Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu. Losing the team’s 2 leaders for extended periods of time simultaneously might’ve given the Wild an excuse to collapse.

To their credit, the Wild instead played hard though they were clearly outmanned. Getting outshot 30-9 through the first 2 periods isn’t the ideal recipe for winning on the road against a top opponent. To their credit, though, the Wild competed with the Kings for every loose puck, whether the puck was in their zone, at center ice or in their offensive zone.

Finally, it needs to be highlighted that the Wild used their young legs and athleticism to keep the pressure on Quick and the Kings. What they lacked in offensive talent, they made up for with physical play, aggressiveness and fantastic goaltending. Last night, that was the perfect recipe for a Wild win.

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Before Matt Cullen and Dany Heatley went out with major injuries, with Heatley’s injury ending his season, the Wild were playing inspired, winning hockey. They had won 7 of their last 8 games, scoring 4 goals or more in most of those games. When Cullen and Heatley were injured, Wild coach Mike Yeo had to do some juggling of his lines, which required some juggling of the Wild’s lines.

As a result of those injuries, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher traded forward Johan Larsson and goalie Matt Hackett and a pair of high draft picks to Buffalo for Sabres captain Jason Pominville.

With all the lines getting re-shuffled, the Wild went into a tailspin, losing 6 of their next 9 games. During that stretch, they were shutout 3 times. Saying that they didn’t play with the swagger they had during their winning streak is understatement.

It wasn’t that Pominville didn’t contribute. He’s been great since joining the Wild. It wasn’t that the entire lineup was in a funk, either. Rookie right wing Charlie Coyle has been a beast, playing with confidence both offensively and defensively.

When Matt Cullen rejoined the lineup in Calgary Monday night, though, Coach Yeo was able to put his lines together again. Coyle teamed with Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise on the first line. Cullen centered Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Suddenly, Pominville found himself on a line with Devin Setoguchi with Kyle Brodziak as their center.

It didn’t take long for the Wild’s swagger to return once Cullen returned. While it’s wrong to give all the credit to Matt Cullen, it’s accurate to say that he’s been the catalyst that triggered the Wild’s latest winning streak. That said, the Wild played well during their recent homestand, with Pominville, Parise and Charlie Coyle all playing well.

In fact, that trio of players will be key in the Wild’s playoff push. If they play at the level they’ve played at recently, they’ll cause tons of problems for the Wild’s opponents.

Now that the team is back together, expect the Wild to finish with a flourish and to make some noise in the playoffs.

The Minnesota Wild continued their surge in the Western Conference standings with a convincing 2-0 shutout of the San Jose Sharks. Niklas Bakstrom stopped all 33 shots for his first shutout of the season. Ryan Suter and Mikko Koivu assisted on a pair of power play goals and they didn’t let their foot off the gas pedal in the third period. Here’s Zach Parise’s power play goal from Koivu and Suter:

What a great pass from Koivu. That’s the type of pass that doesn’t connect unless the chemistry between Koivu and Parise is good. It’s the type of play only confident players make. The fact that they made it look that easy says that they’re playing with lots of confidence and that they’ve got great chemistry together. The other impressive part of that goal is that Niemi, the Sharks’ goalie, didn’t have a chance on the play. That was a sniper’s goal, one that only the most talented players have a chance of making.

Jared Spurgeon’s goal isn’t posted yet but Niemi didn’t have a chance on that shot either. Koivu won a battle in the corner, then saucered the puck out to Suter. Suter collected himself, then sent a touch pass to Spurgeon for a one-timer from the top of the left face-off circle. Though Spurgeon’s shot was a one-timer, that doesn’t mean it was a wrist shot. Spurgeon’s shot was a booming slapper, where he wound up as the puck was going from Suter to Spurgeon.

Still, it’s impossible to say that Niklas Bakstrom wasn’t the first star of the game. He was tracking the puck exceptionally well. He stopped a penalty shot early in the game when the outcome was anything but certain. He handled all the first shots with ease, then directing the puck to his defensemen.

Early in the season, the Wild played well for a period, occasionally playing well for two periods before letting down in the third period. They haven’t gotten rid of that bad habit during their current 5-game winning streak, though today was about as strong as they’ve played all season. It was a 60-minute, complete-game performance.

Charlie Coyle continues his impressive play. He isn’t scoring tons of points but his play along the wall and in the corners is impressive, especially for a rookie. He certainly doesn’t look like the game’s too big for him. The same must be said for Jonas Brodin, who is leading NHL rookies in ice time.

Even though they didn’t figure in the scoring tonight, Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley played strong games. Each played good physical games, throwing their weight around when they got opportunities and establishing a strong forecheck from the opening face-off to the final buzzer.

The Wild continue to be the hottest team in the Western Conference the last three weeks. Their defense is playing with confidence. Niklas Backstrom is a human vacuum cleaner between the pipes. They’ve got 4 lines that are each filling their niche. The Mitchell-Clutterbuck-Brodziak line had a strong game on the forecheck. Torrey Mitchell got under his former team’s skin much of the game, with the highlight being this fight with Tommy Wingels:

As they’ve gained more confidence, the Wild have started putting more pressure on in the offensive zone. They still have yet to play their perfect game, though today’s game was easily their strongest game this season.

The playoffs are still a ways off. Still, if the wild continue playing at this level, something I think they’re capable of doing, they’ll be a nightmare for most teams in April and beyond.

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This has been a fun night for me because, in addition to the Gophers signing Tubby Smith as their new head basketball coach, the Wild trounced the St. Louis Blues 5-1 at the Xcel Energy Center tonight. Pavol Demitra score the Wild’s first goal on a breakaway, with Marian Gaborik giving him a perfect feed to send him in alone. Brian Rolston scored the Wild’s second goal, his thirtieth of the season, which turned out to be the gamewinner. Gaborik got the next 2 goals, his 27th & 28th goals of the season, both power play goals before Mikko Koivu scored his eighteenth goal of the season to finish the scoring.

This has been a magical season thus far for Wild fans. After suffering through some disappointing seasons, GM Doug Risebrough finally put some talent around Gaborik this offseason. He started by trading for Gaborik’s Czech friend Pavol Demitra on draft day. That paved the way for their resigning Gaborik, a true superstar, to a three year extension.

The chemistry between ‘Gabby’ & ‘Pav’ has been positively electric. Gaborik is a jet blur when he wants to be. He also has as nasty of a quick-release wrist shot as I’ve ever seen. Tonight, they worked together at as high a rate as Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic did back in their heyday.

It’d be a mistake, though, to think of Gaborik & Demitra as the team’s only stars. Nothing could be further from the truth. Another key move this past offseason was keeping Brian Rolston. While Gaborik has been Minnesota’s most electric player this season, Rolston’s been Minnesota’s most consistent player this season.

There’s been some magic involved, too, in this season’s run. Another key offseason move was signing Niklas Backstrom from Europe. The thought was that they’d use him as an emergency goalie this season, a backup to backup Josh Harding, if you will. When Harding got injured in training camp, Backstrom became Manny Fernandez’ backup. When Fernandez got injured, Backstrom became the starter, with Harding returning to be Backstrom’s backup. Things couldn’t have worked out better.

Finally, it’d be a huge mistake to not mention the job Jacques Lemaire has done in molding this team into the legitimate Stanley Cup threat that they are. Lemaire has always been one of the best coaches in the NHL. Now that he’s got big league talent on all his lines, he’s opening up the offense to play to the team’s strength, which are its forwards.

How far the Wild will go this offseason is anybody’s guess. What’s certain is that nobody’s anxious to meet them in the first couple of round of the playoffs.

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