ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets are ready for NHL realignment. While the two teams won’t be joining the same division any time soon, the players and fans showed the potential for a budding rivalry exists.
Playing for the second time this season, Minnesota and Winnipeg had another intense, physical affair. Their fans added to the energy in the Xcel Energy Center with chants and booing — and that was before the opening faceoff.
“Teams feed off that energy, so it was kind of a playoff atmosphere tonight,” said Wild forward Darroll Powe, who fought with the Jets’ Tanner Glass in the third period. “You can feel it. You can sense what’s going on out there.”
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Several thousand Winnipeg fans made the roughly eight-hour drive across the border to see the Jets’ win 4-3 in a shootout. Winnipeg’s Evander Kane scored two goals and then added the game-winner in the fourth round of the shootout to send Minnesota to its sixth straight loss. The Wild did snap their streak of four straight losses in regulation as Devin Setoguchi scored twice and Mikko Koivu added a third-period goal for Minnesota (25-23-9). It was Koivu’s first goal in his fourth game since returning from a shoulder injury and his linemate, Setoguchi has four goals in the past four games.
When the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg during the offseason, it added more emphasis to possible realignment in the NHL. The league’s board of governers agreed to a plan which would have united the Jets and Wild in a new eight-team conference with the likes of Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Nashville, and St. Louis. The league wanted to implement the move for the 2012-13 season, but the players’ association rejected the plan, shelving the realignment until a later date.
Regardless, Winnipeg and Minnesota are starting their rivalry now.
“It’s two hard fought games between us and them this year,” Powe said. “It’s definitely something in the making there.”
The Jets won the first meeting between the two teams, 2-1, on Dec. 13, a game that started the Wild’s fall from the top of the NHL standings to where they current sit in 12th place in the Western Conference. Minnesota’s loss at Winnipeg in December snapped a seven-game winning streak and was the first loss in what has become 22 losses in the past 27 games. The first meeting between the teams was also marred by 37 total penalty minutes. There was one fight and an injury to Wild forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Bouchard missed the next two games, returned and played eight games, but wasn’t feeling right. He’s missed the past 16 games with concussion symptoms and Minnesota doesn’t know when he will be able to return, if at all this season.
Thursday was another physical game, especially in a back-and-forth third period. The teams combined for 30 penalty minutes and engaged in some after-the-whistle battles.
The Wild’s Warren Peters tried to bump big Winnipeg defenseman Dustin Byfuglien — a Minnesota native — after a whistle, but took the worst of the blow and the two went at it after Peters got up from the ice and both were given penalties.
Minnesota’s pesky forward Cal Clutterbuck had a couple of run-ins and tried to fight the Jets’ Jim Slater, but the two were separated by the officials. While they were being escorted to the penalty box, Powe and Glass got into a fight at center ice.
“We’re going to have some battles coming up, I think,” Wild forward Nick Johnson said. “Last time too with Bouchy getting hurt in Winnipeg, guys were pretty upset about that. They have guys that battle and so do we. It was a good one out there.” It wasn’t the first time the Jets’ fans were in attendance at the Xcel Energy Center. Several of them were in the building last summer for the NHL draft when it was announced Winnipeg’s team would return with the Jets nickname.
The fans enjoyed their return trip to St. Paul, the closest NHL city to Winnipeg. Jets fans joined in the singing of “O Canada” and were nearly as loud as the hometown fans.
“I think it’s probably going to be,” Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler said of the budding rivalry. “Geographically we’re right down the road from each other and having each other’s fans in the building is going to kind of create some bad tastes out there. We’ve played some close games with them too.”
Wheeler and Byfuglien are also two of three Minnesota-born players with the Jets, along with Mark Stuart.
The pregame energy from the fans never stopped and manifested itself on the ice. It was nearly enough to shake the Wild out of their slump.
“It was a good feeling on the bench and in the locker room,” Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said. “We talked about before the game, this is going to be a rivalry game and despite the fact that we don’t play these guys a lot, the last game there was some intensity and it was going to be fast paced. It was going to be hard hitting. And guys stepped up. Again, a guy like Darroll Powe comes up, and to me that’s what winners do. I know we didn’t win tonight, but there were a lot of guys that played like winners tonight. A guy like Darroll Power isn’t a fighter, but he’ll scrap once in a while. He’ll do what he has to do. He’s going to do the things that he does, plus he’s going to bring a little bit more. I thought he was very good.”