By Jamie MacDonald FOXSportsNorth.com February 12, 2011
As Hockey Day Minnesota gave way to Hockey Night Minnesota, the Wild welcomed St. Louis to Saint Paul in a late start that was well worth the wait.
The two teams faced off a night before in St. Louis, with the Wild taking two points by way of a shootout that went nine rounds, setting the stage for an intense rematch.
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Despite both teams going to extra-extra time in Friday’s physical game, Saturday’s game featured even more energy. There were fights, there were post-whistle shoves, there was tension that at times bordered on powder-keg playoff hockey, and, in the end, there was a Wild win punctuated by a final-buzzer fracas that left blood on the ice and smiles on the faces of the home team.
The largest crowd of the season, numbering 19,322, witnessed the 3-1 win that served as a fitting close to one of the hockey calendar’s great days. After a pair of one-goal high school games played outdoors in Moorhead, Minn., and the Minnesota Gophers’ 7-3 throttling of No. 4 Denver, the Wild moved into the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference playoff race with the win.
Minnesota outplayed the visitors for much of the first and second periods, then closed the third out admirably.
“I think there’s another level of confidence right now with our group,” said Todd Richards. “I thought it was an intense game. I thought we played extremely hard and extremely well. To me, we deserved the result that we got tonight.”
SATURDAY NIGHT’S ALL RIGHT FOR …
On Friday, the tinderbox included the Blues fighting to stay in the playoff conversation and the Wild fighting to lodge themselves in it with fewer than 30 games remaining.
There was also the matter of the back-to-back games adding to the old-school dash of drama. And, for good measure, the Wild’s Friday win and strong Saturday start probably had something to do with the tension, too.
In all, the teams combined for more than 50 penalty minutes, six fighting majors and a pair of misconducts. It wasn’t quite Pens-Isles, but it sure did spice things up for Hockey Day.
It also had to make for an even more gratifying two points for the Wild.
“It’s probably one of the most encouraging things — to know that you can just elevate your game to another level and beat teams that are going to try to crank it up,” said Cal Clutterbuck, who scored his team-leading 17th of the season. “Obviously, this one was pretty tough.” FIRST THINGS FIRST
What started as a garden variety spirited first period erupted into one of the more entertaining five minutes of hockey in some time.
The Wild controlled much of the early play, running up a shots advantage of 3-0 by the 6:00 mark of the first, which evaporated during a St. Louis power that began with a Mikko Koivu penalty at 6:13. It was also during that power play that Brent Burns leveled T.J. Oshie in the game’s first overt sign of bad blood.
Koivu came out of the box after serving his time, and the Wild went back to work, drawing a St. Louis penalty at 8:44. Minnesota added to its shots lead, increasing the advantage to 9-4 by the 14 minute mark. And that’s about when things started getting interesting.
Cam Barker was hit behind the Minnesota net by Matt D’Agostini near the 15 minute mark, to which Barker took great exception. Barker started chopping at D’Agostini, and the tension began to build as the two went to the corner and up along the half wall. By the time they got there, D’Agostini finally had enough and dropped the gloves. Each earned fighting majors at 15:13 in a spirited exchange.
Then Brad Staubitz happened. Staubitz, who in eight shifts landed seven hits Saturday night, twice lined up Carlo Colaiacovo on the same shift about a minute later. Cam Janssen took exception to the second hit, which left Staubitz on the ice, and the Blues’ right winger gave Staubitz a little grab on the chin to invite a fight.
The two went back and forth, trading thrown punches as they migrated from the half-wall near the Blues bench and toward the slot in front of Jaroslav Halak. Both earned fighting majors at 16:48, but Janssen earned an extra two for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“Definitely, it’s old-school hockey,” said Staubitz.
Minnesota opened the scoring three seconds after the minor expired. The Wild whipped the puck around pretty well on the power play all night, with a few players trading shots for passes. Jared Spurgeon did just that from the top of the point, moving it to Clutterbuck, who was standing on top of the left faceoff dot. All the puck movement forced Halak to adjust, and Clutterbuck’s one-timer sneaked past a diving Roman Polak and through Halak’s pads at 18:51.
Skating on a line with Andrew Brunette and Mikko Koivu, Antti Miettinen is going to get his share of chances as the trio continues to polish its cycling game.
Miettinen had missed a few one-time opportunities lately (his previous goal came on a power play slap shot from the top of the zone), but his goal Saturday turned out to be a well-earned game-winner.
Minnesota started the second period well, and Koivu’s line helped add to the momentum.
Off a lost draw in the St. Louis end, Miettinen hunted down a loose puck behind the net, outworked Polak near the corner, took possession along the wall, then sent the puck deep and curled for the net. Brunette took the pass and returned the favor, setting up Miettinen for a successful one-timer at 4:07 of the second.
Shots stood 15-6 at that point, and Minnesota continued to pressure. Koivu had a two-on-one with Spurgeon at 6:52. Eric Nystrom, who one of these days will score a goal, had a chance at 7:03. Staubitz was camped in front of a scrum in front of Halak as the shots were 19-8, but the scrum also led to Staubitz taking a roughing penalty at 7:39.
What energy the Blues might have created there was ushered away by Halak sending a clearing attempt on the ensuing power play into the netting to his left for a delay of game penalty at 8:18.
Four seconds later, the Wild were up 3-0 on a goal credited to Kyle Brodziak, and Halak was headed to the bench in favor of Ty Conklin.
But for those anxious moments in the second, Minnesota carried most of the play in the third, too. Alexander Steen’s interference penalty at 14:03 of the frame effectively put an end to the scoring threats, though not the physical threats.
The tension between the two teams finally burst at the end of the game. With the crowd cheering for the Wild over the final 30 seconds, one last draw took place with 3.2 seconds showing on the clock. As the buzzer sounded, things came unhinged.
Clayton Stoner and David Backes found each other in a scrum that seemed to engulf Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom. Andy McDonald and Clutterbuck had words, and Backstrom was trying to separate Blues players from Wild players.
Stoner and Backes broke free from the gaggle, pulling the attention of the rink toward them, tussling and trading punches. When things game to a rest, with the crowd on its feet and the sound building, a pool of blood had been spilled, Stoner’s hands were bloodied, and Greg Zannon was imploring the fans to cheer even louder.
Stoner left the ice raising both arms to the crowd’s delight.
“I think [Backes] was agitating all game, and good for him, he was playing hard,” Stoner said. “At the same time, we have to stand up for ourselves, and I think we did a good job throughout the whole game.”
The Wild will have Sunday and Monday off from game action, then return to host the league-leading Canucks on Tuesday. As of Saturday, Vancouver boasted the most points, most goals, among the fewest allowed, and the best goal differential (+55) in hockey. The Canucks, however, have lost two of the teams’ previous three meetings — both in Saint Paul, with the most recent a 4-0 blanking on Jan. 16. Vancouver won an Oct. 22 game, 5-1, in Vancouver while the Wild drew first blood with a 6-2 win on Oct. 16.
The Canucks will be playing the middle game of a three-game road trip that opens in St. Louis on Monday, meaning Vancouver will be hitting town for the second half of a back-to-back.