ST. PAUL, Minn. - Defencemen blocking shots in front of him and the normally unflappable Niklas Backstrom in the net. This has been the formula for success for the momentum-building Minnesota Wild.
Backstrom turned in another strong performance with 23 saves as the Wild held on to beat the Colorado Avalanche 3-2 on Wednesday night.
"When a goalie looks calm and controlled, he looks like he's on top of his game," Wild coach Todd Richards said. "I think Nik has a confidence now with the guys in front of him, and without question the guys in front of him have a confidence in Nik."
Antti Miettinen, Martin Havlat and John Madden scored for the Wild, who overcame a two-goal game by David Jones. The Avalanche, still waiting on Peter Forsberg's visa clearance, played without captain Adam Foote and lost another defenceman, Kyle Cumiskey, to a head injury in the first period. They have dropped five in a row.
"Things aren't going too good right now," Jones said. "But that being said, I think we did better tonight than we did in the past few games.
"I guess that's the only positive we can take from this."
The Avalanche fell to 3-8 in their last 11 games. Craig Anderson lost his sixth straight start, giving up 21 goals over those games. He was pulled in the second period for Peter Budaj.
Backstrom improved to 16-4-2 in 22 starts against the Avalanche. He has given up two goals or less in five of six starts, with wins in four to help the Wild climb back in the Western Conference playoff race.
The Avalanche caught a break 23 seconds into the third period when Wild all-star defenceman Brent Burns gave the puck away along the back boards, and Jones snagged it. He flipped a pass from behind the net that appeared to deflect off Minnesota's Nick Schultz before going into the net to cut the lead to 3-2.
But the Wild, who are 12-for-12 on the penalty kill over their last four games, set the tone early with 14 shots and 15 hits in the first. They play well when they're grinding and scrapping around the net, and that's just what they did in this game.
The first period featured three goals in a 51-second span. With Andrew Brunette screening Anderson and then deftly lifting defenceman Ryan Wilson's stick, Miettinen's power-play slapshot beat Anderson to make him the eighth Wild player with at least 10 goals this season.
Just as the public address announcer was giving the recap, Jones snatched a loose puck off a faceoff and sent a shot between Backstrom's legs to tie it and prompt a groan from the crowd.
Havlat, however, responded with his team-high 15th goal. The all-star muscled the puck away from Paul Stastny behind the net and turning to put a backhand attempt past Anderson.
"We've got four lines playing hard every night, and it's tough to play against a team that keeps coming after you shift after shift," Backstrom said.
Jones could have had a hat trick, but his goal in the second was immediately waved off, a ruling confirmed by the replay officials because his hand touched the puck. Madden, with Brad Staubitz screening Anderson, followed a few minutes later by reaching forward and firing a shot in. Budaj was summoned from the bench after that.
"It's pretty tough to stop what you don't see," Anderson said.
The Wild improved to 12-4-1 in division games, getting an important bounce back from a 1-0 loss at Phoenix on Saturday. They moved five points ahead of the Avalanche, who have fallen to 14th place in the still-tight conference race.
"The compete level was higher tonight. It was a decent road game, the way we came out and played," coach Joe Sacco said. "Unfortunately we don't get the results we want."
Sacco criticized the effort on the power play, which was 0-for-4, and even called out Anderson for not making a couple of critical saves to help keep the Wild from pulling away.
"We can't start pointing fingers," said Anderson, who's 2-6-2 in 10 career starts against the Wild. "It's everybody collectively. Look at yourself in the mirror and see what you can do better.
"Everyone's got to bring a little bit more."
NOTES—Brunette was given a watch, a commemorative silver stick and a US$15,000 cheque for his hometown youth hockeyassociation in Sudbury, Ont., in honour of reaching 1,000 career games last week. Brunette's brother and his golden retriever led the crowd in the traditional "Let's Play Hockey!" chant before the puck drop. ... Jones ended a six-game scoreless streak. ... Ten of the last 14 games between these teams have been decided by one goal, with plenty of fights mixed in.