Minnesota Wild on fire but still can't catch equally hot Canucks

The Canadian Press
The Hockey News

Minnesota Wild on fire but still can't catch equally hot Canucks

The Canadian Press

Or anybody else ahead of them in the Western Conference.

"It's hard, everybody's winning, it's unbelievable," Wild centre Pavol Demitra said Friday. "We've won so many games and we're still in the same place. We're not moving anywhere.

"I don't know who's losing in this league."

The Wild have gone 19-4-3 since the NHL's all-star break, including a current eight-game win streak in March.

"Are we as good as we're playing right now? I don't know," said Wild GM Doug Risebrough. "But I'm glad we're playing this way."

And yet they still sit sixth in the Western Conference, one point behind Vancouver for first place in the Northwest Division (which would carry the No. 3 seed in the conference).

But the second half has proven a lot to Risebrough. His team, headed back to the playoffs after missing out the last two seasons, more than survived a stretch from Feb. 1-March 17 that saw them play 14 of 21 games on the road. They went 15-3-2, many of those games against conference opponents also headed to the playoffs.

"We played a lot of games under the gun, we played a lot of games where we had to win," said Risebrough. "These were games we had to win, and we won them, and I think that's a good sign."

Playing the bulk of games in goal in the second half has been Niklas Backstrom, whose .925 save percentage and 2.12 goals-against average go hand in hand with a 20-8-5 record.

This was supposed to be Manny Fernandez's first full season as the No. 1 goalie after years of splitting duties with Dwayne Roloson but unless something dramatic happens, Backstrom is the guy come playoff time.

"He got a chance and he made the best of it," said Risebrough. "That came with winning games when Manny wasn't on at the start of the year, relieving Manny sometimes, then he got the chance to be the No. 1."

The question is: Where were the NHL scouts? The 29-year-old Helsinki native went undrafted. The Wild signed him to a US$750,000, one-year free-agent contract last summer after he spent the last decade in his native Finnish league.

"One of the things about being a GM is that you got to acknowledge luck," Risebrough said with a laugh. "I believe in our people, they found Backstrom.

"We brought him in only to compete for a backup position with Josh Harding. I can't say that we saw a lot more than anybody else."

The challenge has been to make sure Fernandez, currently out with a knee injury, accept what's going on.

"He wanted to be the guy this year - unfortunately he's been injured," said Risebrough.

Up front, Slovak linemates Demitra and Marian Gaborik have been as good as advertised. Risebrough surprised many when he traded for the 32-year-old Demitra last summer, the kind of blockbuster move not usually associated with the Wild.

But it was a calculated decision. He was hoping to help sheppard the 25-year-old Gaborik.

"Pavol has pushed Marian in a very comfortable way," said Risebrough. "They respect each other. They're good friends, they're very happy for each other. And yet Pavol is not afraid to throw a jab at Marian in front of everybody, in a friendly way.

"And we probably didn't have anybody else who could do that."

Demitra said the instant chemistry with Gaborik comes from having played together before on the national team as well as during the lockout with Trencin in Slovakia.

"He's a special player," said Demitra. "I think he's got a chance to score 60 goals one year if he's healthy."

Gaborik has 28 goals in only 41 games after missing most of the first half with a groin problem. Demitra has helped him on and off the ice.

"We're close friends," said Demitra. "We talk a lot. I think he's changed a lot. Before he was just a shooter, he wasn't really looking for anybody. But he's changed this year, he can make passes, plays good defence.

"That's a big turnaround for him. He's trying to be a complete player now."


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Minnesota Wild on fire but still can't catch equally hot Canucks