ST. PAUL, Minn. — Nothing seems to rattle Wild goalie Josh Harding these days — not even taunts from visiting fans.
With the Winnipeg Jets in town Sunday, their well-traveled fans helped fill Xcel Energy Center. Along with the “Go Jets, Go!” cheers throughout the game, Jets fans heckled Minnesota’s goalie by yelling “HAR-DING!” any time Winnipeg had the puck in the Wild’s zone.
The NHL’s hottest goaltender tuned all of that out, stopping 21 shots to help the Wild earn a 2-1 win over their new-found rivals.
“They have some loyal fans. It’s so exciting playing in that game,” Harding said. “The atmosphere is incredible. It almost feels like you’re in a playoff game. I don’t know if I’ve ever been taunted that much in a home game. . . . If I let that get to me, I have some problems.”
Added Wild forward Zach Parise: “You don’t expect your own goalie to get taunted in your own rink.”
At times Sunday, it almost felt like a road game for Minnesota, which improved to 13-4-4 with the win. Well before the opening faceoff, Jets fans broke into loud chants, only to be drowned out by boos from the Wild faithful. No fewer than five times, a chorus of of “Go Jets, Go!” rang out before the game began.
Things only intensified for both fanbases once the action started. Minnesota took a 1-0 lead late in the first period when captain Mikko Koivu scored his third goal of the season. Koivu found a rebound in the slot and fired it past Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
The goal temporarily silenced Winnipeg’s fans while igniting the Wild fans.
“How about our fans tonight? I loved it,” said Minnesota coach Mike Yeo. “Their fans are great, there’s no question. They travel well and they’re loud. I thought our fans responded. It made for a great atmosphere.”
Harding and Minnesota’s defense didn’t give the Jets fans in attendance much to cheer for in the first period. Winnipeg mustered just two shots on goal in the opening frame and trailed 1-0 after the first intermission.
After the Wild dominated the first period, it was Winnipeg carrying the play in the second. The Jets outshot Minnesota 14-8 in the second but still didn’t have a goal to show for it.
That didn’t last long, however, as Minnesota native Dustin Byfuglien scored the equalizer on a deflection in front of Harding just 54 seconds into the third period. Just as the Wild fans erupted on Koivu’s goal, so did the Jets fans when Byfuglien found the net.
“It was fun game to be in, I’m sure for both teams,” Koivu said. “If that doesn’t get you into the game, you shouldn’t be here. It was amazing, and it was fun to play.”
In what certainly felt like a playoff atmosphere in the third period, both teams traded scoring chances — and their fans traded chants — while the score remained tied late in the game. Koivu once again provided the heroics for Minnesota, taking a pass from Charlie Coyle and burying it in the back of the net.
The majority of the 18,283 in attendance — at least those donning Wild colors — erupted as Koivu’s second goal of the game gave Minnesota a lead with 3:12 remaining. The Wild held on for the 2-1 win, the second time this season that Minnesota topped Winnipeg by that score.
With the new division alignments that began this season, the Wild and Jets will see each other much more frequently in the Western Conference’s Central Division. In fact, Minnesota plays in Winnipeg next Saturday. For fans of either team willing to make the seven hour drive from St. Paul to Winnipeg or vice versa, the proximity of the two teams only helps add to the new rivalry.
The players seem to think so, too. Sure, it helped that the Wild won, but Minnesota’s players couldn’t help but hide their enjoyment of Sunday night’s environment.
“It was almost the louder they got, the louder our fans got and they took turns. From the start that made it a really good atmosphere and a really fun atmosphere,” Parise said. “I think it’s going to be a really good rivalry for a long time between the teams. It was a fun building to play in.”