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 last night's contest did not disappoint as the Flyers won for the first time at the arena, 3-1. The victory put the Flyers in a three-way tie with the Rangers and Devils for the top spot in the Atlantic Division with 32 points.
The star was Antero Niittymaki. Making just his fourth start of the season, the goalie turned away 28 shots as the Flyers improved to 1-1-1 at the Wild's arena.
"Pretty much all their chances came on the [eight] power plays," Niittymaki said. "They all like to shoot the puck. It was a good win."
Coach John Stevens gave Niittymaki four days to think about this start after informing him well in advance.
"I had a chance to practice a little while and mentally get ready for this game, and it worked out well," the goalie said.
The Flyers killed seven penalties, including two five-on-three disadvantages - one early and one late.
"You don't want eight penalties against a team that has a good power play," Stevens said. "The penalty kill along with Nitty were just tremendous. . . . They go hand-in-hand. To kill that much time five-on-three, I thought, was remarkable. We had a good understanding of trying to take away their primary option because [Brian] Rolston has a great shot up top."
Niittymaki outplayed Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom, who had won four games in succession. Backstrom was beaten on a shot from Braydon Coburn from outside the blue line early in the final period.
"I tried to get it on net," Coburn said. "It was lucky enough to go in. He just missed it."
All three periods saw the Flyers draw penalties in the opening minute.
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 minute, 9 seconds.
Niittymaki smothered two shots from the slot with his pads - one from Brent Burns, the other from Rolston - and the Flyers killed the penalties off with Richards coming out of the box for a two-on-one rush. He rifled a shot off the right post.
"When we really needed Niitty to make a save, he was tremendous," Stevens said.
Briere was stunned by his penalty call.
"I asked him who I roughed," Briere said. "Did I rough myself on the ice when I fell down? It was a weird call early. There were a lot of questionable calls all night. We were able to get our energy from killing penalties. Sometimes, you get it from a big save or power play or big goal. Tonight we got our energy from the big kills."
The early success energized the Flyers. Scottie Upshall, who pocketed two points in the period, gave them a 1-0 lead at 4:44 with his sixth goal. Denis Tolpeko shot the puck into the slot, where it went off Jeff Carter's skate. Upshall, battling for position, got off a weak backhander and the puck slipped under Backstrom.
"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."
Carter made it 2-0 at 9:28 with his first goal in five games.
In between the two Flyers goals, Niittymaki made 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 first period.
The Wild had a goal called back, but it was clear that the puck never crossed the line.
The Flyers were nailed with a penalty again to start the second stanza, and the Wild capitalized with a power-play goal at 55 seconds. Pavol Demitra redirected the 13-year veteran Rolston's point shot, cutting the deficit to 2-1.
Now it's on to Colorado for the Flyers for a game tomorrow night. The Flyers have earned five points in their last three games in the Mile High City.