Edmonton Oilers defenseman Ladislav Smid (5) of the Czech Republic, punches Minnesota Wild center James Sheppard during a fight in the first period of an NHL hockey game in St. Paul, Minn., Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009. Both players received major penalties for fighting. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Ann Heisenfelt
ST. PAUL, Minn. - Missing star forward Marian Gaborik and struggling to score at even strength, the Minnesota Wild have awakened their offence.
Elbows and fists from the Edmonton Oilers got them going even more. Journeyman Krys Kolanos and scrapper Cal Clutterbuck gave the Wild an early lead with first-period goals, and Niklas Backstrom stayed perfect in goal against the Oilers with a 5-1 victory Thursday night.
"The last 10 minutes of the game it didn't really look like they were interested in even coming back at all," said Clutterbuck, who was credited with a game-high five hits. "If they're going to do that, go right ahead. They're not going to win many games."
Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Brent Burns and Eric Belanger each scored in the chippy third period against former teammate Dwayne Roloson to stretch the lead. Mikko Koivu sliced through two Oilers defenders to set up Burns with 4:41 left.
"We're beating people," coach Jacques Lemaire said. "There was a time that we couldn't beat one player 1-on-1."
Backstrom made 20 saves. He has never lost to Edmonton, lifting his career record to 10-0 with a 1.58 goals against average in 12 appearances. The Oilers have lost eight straight games at Xcel Energy Center; they've been outscored 29-9 in those contests. Only one went to overtime, and the last victory was two years ago.
"It's frustrating when a team beats you regularly and you're down 2-1 and then they get another goal you feel like, 'Not again,"' Lemaire said. "And you could see that the guys were undisciplined like that."
The Oilers took four penalties in the final 8:41. Liam Reddox scored Edmonton's only goal, midway through the first period.
"The last few minutes did get away from us," defenceman Sheldon Souray said. "But up until the third goal, I thought we were right in the game. We were pushing it hard and got some good opportunities. I thought through the first two periods we outplayed them. But it doesn't always reflect in the score."
When one team is winning 1-on-1 matchups in the offensive zone, the other is giving them up. Oilers coach Craig MacTavish was disappointed with his blue-line.
"Outside of the heinous defensive breakdowns and lapses on some of the plays, we played pretty good," MacTavish said. "And we battled hard. It was as hard as we've competed in a while."
Given the tight state of the Western Conference in today's lose-in-overtime-but-still-pick-up-a-standings-point NHL, it's not a stretch to suggest the winner of the Oilers-Wild season series will have a clear edge over the other in the competition for one of the final playoff spots. MacTavish essentially said as much before the game. This was their first of six meetings.
"Like you saw tonight, it's going to be intense and it's going to be heated," Clutterbuck said, adding: "We're going to have to keep our heads and when we get a chance, put 'em away like we did tonight."
These teams entered the game in a three-way tie with fellow Northwest Division foe Colorado for ninth place, just four points out of fifth slightly past the season's midway point. The Wild started their second half with a flourish, beating Phoenix 6-3 with a badly needed breakthrough offensive game for their slumping top two lines.
The grinders picked up the slack in this one, giving Minnesota a couple more five-on-five scores to move out of last place in the league in that category. Bouchard's goal off an own-zone Oilers turnover was the Wild's 61st in 5-on-5 situations.
Eleven seconds after Ladislav Smid of the Oilers and James Sheppard shed their helmets and dropped their gloves for a fight that bloodied Sheppard's nose but ended without a winner, Antti Miettinen manoeuvred around defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky and made a spot-on pass to a streaking Kolanos. Denis Grebeshkov fell down, and Kolanos tipped the puck at Roloson hard enough to get it past him.
Reddox tied the game, his late whack of a loose rebound just in time before Backstrom froze the puck. But on only the Wild's seventh shot of the night, Clutterbuck collected a back pass from Sheppard and went top shelf to make it 2-1.
"We're going at the net, and right now it's going our way," Bouchard said. "So let's hope it's going to keep."
Notes: Bouchard broke a 10-game streak without a goal. He has eight this season, after signing a five-year, US$20.4 million contract in July. ... Roloson made 19 saves. ... Wild LW Benoit Pouliot, struggling in his first full season, was sent to the minors afterward.