The Minnesota Wild have rebounded from a slow start, thanks in large part to their success against the Eastern Conference.
As they continue a four-game trip versus East teams, the Wild try to maintain their perfect record against the conference and earn their fourth straight win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night.
Minnesota (7-10-0) has won four of five with three of those victories coming over East opponents, the most recent a 5-2 win versus Toronto on Tuesday night.
“We were an opportunistic group,” coach Todd Richards said. “You get on the power play, especially a 5-on-3, you have to score and we were able to score.”
Richards lost nine of his first 12 games as Wild coach and didn’t earn a road victory until a 2-1 win over Pittsburgh on Oct. 31.
Minnesota has a chance to get out of the Northwest Division cellar if it continues its strong play against East opponents. The Wild face teams from that conference in five of the next six games.
That includes a Lightning club against which they have had plenty of success since joining the NHL in 2000. Minnesota is 7-2-0 with one tie in the all-time series and 3-1-1 at Tampa, winning there once in each of the last two seasons.
Backstrom and Lightning counterpart Mike Smith(notes) didn’t allow a goal through overtime at the St. Pete Times Forum last Oct. 18, with Antti Miettinen(notes) giving the Wild a 1-0 shootout victory in the third round.
Backstrom also bested Smith in his two other career games against the Lightning and has a 1.30 goals-against average versus Tampa Bay, giving the Wild three consecutive wins in the series.
Backstrom and Minnesota, however, will face an improved Tampa Bay team that is one of two clubs without a regulation home loss at 4-0-3. Behind goaltender Antero Niittymaki(notes), the Lightning (6-4-5) won two of three to conclude a recent four-game trip.
Niittymaki, who began the season as Smith’s backup after signing with Tampa Bay in July, stopped 36 shots in his third straight start, a 3-1 win over Montreal on Saturday. Alex Tanguay(notes) and Ryan Malone(notes) each had a goal and an assist.
Niittymaki is among the league leaders with a 1.95 GAA and .940 save percentage. He is 2-0-0 with a 1.51 GAA against Minnesota.
“He’s really solid,” coach Rick Tocchet said. “He’s seeing the puck and he’s square and he’s really given us a chance to win.”
While Smith has lost three straight to the Wild, he also recorded two of his eight career shutouts against them.
Tanguay, with seven points in his last six games, recorded 11 in his previous 10 matchups with Minnesota.