ST. PAUL, Minn. - This week's issue of Sports Illustrated calls St. Paul the new Hockeytown USA, supplanting Detroit, which has experienced a precipitous decline in attendance since last spring.
The Wild can boast of something that no other franchise can: Every game that has ever been played at Xcel Energy Center, including exhibitions, has been a sellout.
Minnesotans have a ravenous appetite for good hockey games, and tonight's contest did not disappoint as the Flyers won for the first time at the arena, 3-1.
The top star was Antero Niittymaki. Making just his fourth start of the season, the Finnish goalie made 28 saves.
The Flyers led by 2-1 going into the third period. They are 13-0 when leading after 40 minutes, while Minnesota is 2-7-1 when trailing after two.
There were two keys to the Flyers win. First, they killed off two five-on-three disadvantages. Second, Niittymaki outplayed Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom, who had won four games in succession.
He was beaten by a ghastly goal 4 minutes, 1 second into the third period when Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn fired a shot from outside the Wild blue line with both teams skating four-on-four. Backstrom simply whiffed on the shot as the puck sailed over his glove hand, amid strong boos from the fans.
The Flyers are 1-1-1 at the Wild's arena.
All three periods saw the Flyers penalized in the opening minute, which kept coach John Stevens' penalty-killers busy. Minnesota had eight power plays, scoring just once.
"Nitty really made some big saves and kept us in the game and we kind of fed off that," Jeff Carter said.
It was an ominous start for the Flyers as Danny Briere went to the box 35 seconds into the game for a roughing call against Backstrom. Then Mike Richards went off for slashing, giving the Wild a two-man power play advantage for 1:09.
Niittymaki smothered two shots from the slot with his pads, one from Brent Burns, the other from Brian Rolston, and the Flyers killed it off with Richards coming out of the box for a two-on-one rush. He rifled a shot off the right post.
"A big kill that early in the game," said Scottie Upshall. "There were a couple of bad calls in the game where we had to go down five-on-three. . . . Goaltending has been great. Nitty [was] spectacular in the net for us."
The penalty kill energized the Flyers and Upshall, who pocketed two points in the period, gave the Flyers a 1-0 lead at 4:44 with his sixth goal. Denis Tolpeko shot the puck into the slot where it went off Carter's skate. Upshall, battling for position, got a weak backhander off and the puck slipped under Backstrom, off his skate and into the net.
Carter, who had a chance on that first goal but whiffed on the puck, made it 2-0 at 9:28 with his first goal in five games.
"I think our line right now has been playing great," Upshall said. "We are fighting for that puck, we're hungry, and it showed on both of our goals. We worked really hard in the corners and happened to be in front of the net to get those rebounds."
Said Carter of the goal, "It was a great play by Denis. They had a good cycle going and I just went to the net. I don't know where their D-men went. I was all alone and just put it in."
In between the two Flyers goals, Niittymaki had his best save of the period, again smothering a Sean Hill one-timer from the high slot. Minnesota outshot the Flyers, 10-9, in the period.
The Wild had a goal called back but it was clear the puck never crossed the line.
The Flyers were nailed for a penalty again to start the second period. This time, the Wild capitalized with a power-play goal at 55 seconds when Pavol Demitra redirected Brian Rolston's point shot past Niittymaki, cutting the deficit to 2-1.
The Flyers had two power plays in the second period but squandered both opportunities, looking for the perfect shot instead of just firing pucks at the net and going for rebounds against Backstrom.
Niittymaki made a dazzling save in the final minute on Demitra on a dump-in that took a bad carom off the back boards.