CALGARY – Niklas Backstrom played second fiddle to Mikka Kiprusoff for Finland at the Winter Games, but the Wild netminder took centre stage on Wednesday night.
Matched up against his countryman, Backstrom made 29 saves for his second shutout and Mikko Koivu and Andrew Brunette each had a goal and an assist as the Minnesota Wild downed the Calgary Flames 4-0.
“You never know what to expect when you come out from a break,” said Backstrom, who made just one start at the Olympics as Kiprusoff’s backup for the bronze-medal winning Finns.
“We got off to a good start and played a really solid team game tonight.”
Up 1-0 after the first, the Wild stretched their lead on a pair of dazzling rushes.
Brunette finished off a pretty tic-tac-toe passing play started by Koivu and Finnish Olympic teammate Anti Miettinen at 10:12 for his 18th of the season.
Less than four minutes later, Koivu dashed down the wing and wired a rising slapshot inside the far post past Kiprusoff.
“It’s always fun to play against (Kiprusoff),” said the Minnesota captain. “We’re from the same hometown, I know him a little bit from skating with him in the summer. It’s a great challenge for us always when we play against him, it’s fun.”
Kyle Brodziak and Martin Havlat also scored for Minnesota (31-27-4). With the win, the Wild moved to within three points of Calgary and four points of the Detroit Red Wings, who hold down the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The Wild, who play in Edmonton on Friday night, entered the night having lost seven of its previous eight away from home.
“For some reason, it’s been real difficult for us on the road this year,” said Brodziak. “It’s tough to explain how we play so great at home but we almost feel like a different team on the road. But tonight, it was a good step for us for our confidence on the road.”
Calgary (30-24-9) remains in ninth, one point up on Dallas.
“We just played a bad hockey game,” said Flames centre Matt Stajan. “Nothing else you can really say. My line couldn’t generate anything, gave up a lot of odd-man rushes and they capitalized.
“It’s tough to play from behind against a team like that. Bottom line is we have to be better.”
Backstrom, two years younger than Kiprusoff, was the busier of the two in the second period as Calgary outshot the Wild 13-7, but saw the Minnesota lead grow to 3-0.
Jamal Mayers had the Flames’ best chance of the period with a close-in opportunity from the side of the net, but Backstrom stabbed his glove out to make an acrobatic save.
“Obviously, a shutout in a building like this, we know it’s always tough to get a win here,” said Koivu. “The way Backstrom played tonight, he was awesome. Obviously it makes it a lot easier on the players when the goalie’s playing like that.”
The game was penalty free until the third period, when Wild defenceman Greg Zanon was sent off for playing with a broken stick. The non-contact foul was befitting of a game that lacked much emotion or intensity, especially from the Flames, whose struggles at home continue.
“You get rewarded for hard work, and there wasn’t enough of it tonight,” said Flames defenceman Cory Sarich.
Calgary is 3-8-1 in its last 12 games at the Pengrowth Saddledome.
“We felt pretty good in the locker-room before the game, it was just a poor effort,” said Flames forward Christopher Higgins. “We were guilty of a couple bad plays, I’m sure a lot of guys aren’t happy with their play. There’s no excuses at this point anymore.”
The Flames have scored been either shutout or held to one goal in nine of their last 17 games.
General manager Darryl Sutter overhauled the Flames lineup prior to the Olympic break with a pair of multi-player deals, but the new players – including five forwards – have not sparked the offence.
Stajan, centring the No. 1 line with Jarome Iginla, has scored twice in eight games and is the lone newcomer with more than one goal since joining Calgary. Ales Kotalik and Niklas Hagman have scored once, while Higgins and Jamal Mayers are still looking for their first as a Flame.
Kiprusoff, 34, made his 14th straight start for the Flames. Adding in five starts during the Olympics, the netminder has had a heavy workload this season and with that in mind, Sutter acquired veteran Finnish goalie Vesa Toskala from Anaheim on Wednesday.
Notes: Neither D Steve Staios or Toskala, who Calgary acquired earlier in the day in trades, were in uniform. Recalled from Abbotsford (AHL) to be the Flames back-up goalie was Matt Keetley … Calgary LW Rene Bourque (shoulder) returned after missing three games prior to the Olympic break. The two-week layoff also allowed Minnesota RW Chuck Kobasew (knee) to get healthy. Kobasew played for the first time since Dec. 26, having missed 23 games.