The Winnipeg Jets got a glimpse of the team they'd like to become Tuesday night in the form of the Minnesota Wild.
Like the Jets, the Wild are a young team full of no names, led by a first-year coach who lives and dies by tight checking and good goaltending. That's where the comparison is supposed to stop because while the Jets have yet to rise above ninth place in the Eastern Conference, the Wild lead the Western Conference and have the best record in the NHL. They also arrived in Winnipeg on a seven-game winning streak.
But at least for one night, the Jets got the better of the Wild, winning a closely-fought game that went down to the wire before the Jets managed a 2-1 victory, thanks to a late power play goal by Bryan Little.
"It was like a playoff game," Winnipeg coach Claude Noel said afterward. "It was kind of what we anticipated, it was kind of a chess match."
Wild coach Mike Yeo put it another way, remarking that next year could be interesting with both teams in the same division. "I think, as you could see, the two teams don't like each other out there and I'm sure that the next one will be very interesting as well," Yeo said after the game. "They seem to want to get involved in a lot of scrums and stuff like that after the whistle and so, well, obviously the next time we play them it's going to be a pretty exciting game as well."
Before the game, Yeo talked about building a winning culture at Minnesota, a team that hadn't won a playoff series in nine years and seemed destined for another bad season until he came along this summer. "We pay very close attention to details in our game and we play a structured game. But the words that we use [to describe the team]are fast, physical and aggressive," he said.
The Wild demonstrated that from the start Tuesday. They came out hitting, checking and giving the Jets little room to operate. They also did something else early, quiet the normally raucous MTS Centre crowd.
But the Jets held firm and managed some of the best chances of the first period, including a hard open shot by Evander Kane that sailed over the net and a long shot by Zach Bogosian that hit the cross bar. The Wild had their chances too, with Mikko Koivu missing and Pierre-Marc Bouchard failing to connect on a backhand while Jet goalie Ondrej Pavelec was sprawling across the ice.
Both goaltenders had to be sharp early on, especially Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom. He batted one puck out of the air and made a diving save on a shot by Andrew Ladd that looked certain to go in.
Penalties have hurt the Jets all season and they paid for it again Tuesday. With two men off early in the second period, Guillaume Latendresse tapped in a rebound to give the Wild a 1-0 lead. Strangely, the goal seemed to kick start the Jets and they came roaring back, missing narrowly on one chance when a shot by Little slid through the crease and on another when a bouncing puck somehow stayed just outside the Wild goal. Their persistence finally paid off though when Bogosian tied the game on a long blast from the blue line.
"We almost played angry that they got the first goal," Noel said afterward.
By then the game had opened up and the crowd had fired up. The Jets got some added inspiration shortly after their goal from Pavelec, who stopped Bouchard on a breakaway. But then Backstrom stoned Kane from close range to snuff out a Jet attack. The Jets thought they had taken the lead late in the second when a long shot by Dustin Byfuglien went in. But the goal was waved off for goaltender interference after Kyle Wellwood got shoved into Backstrom.
The Wild came out flying in the third, pouring down on Pavelec who had to make several smart stops, including one on a partial breakaway by Bouchard. The Jets had their chances, including on some nifty moves by Tim Stapleton that had Backstrom baffled.
The heroics came with just one second left on a Jet power play when Little banged home a rebound from the far right side of Backstrom, while the Wild goalie was far out of position. "It's one of those games where I felt like I was missing everything," Little said after the game. "I didn't feel like it was going to be my night, but it happened late in the game on a great pass."
The Jets came close to blowing it when Bogosian took a five-minute major for a boarding hit on Bouchard and got a game misconduct with 1:06 left in the game. The Wild pulled Backstrom, giving them two extra attackers. Then Jim Slater broke his stick leaving the Jets even more short handed. But Pavelec made two crucial saves and the Jets hung on.
"We battled so hard tonight," said Pavelec, who made 34 saves in total. "It wasn't easy. [Minnesota]is a really tough team to play against. We battled tonight. We battled all game long. I think we've learned how to win those games."
"A six on four at the end and Slater breaks his stick. Who needs that?" joked Noel.
He added that it was "nice to win that game. It was tough for anybody to lose a game like that, it was a well played game."
When asked the potential for a fierce rivalry next season, Noel said: "Both teams clearly wanted to win the game. If that leads to the dislike [Yeo mentioned]that's what happens. That's okay. Rivalries are healthy. You're in Minnesota, we're in Winnipeg, we're one up on you."
The Jets have now won five straight at home and continue their long December at the MTS Centre with a game Thursday against Washington. The Jets are now 14-12-4 with 32 points. The Wild drop to 20-8-3 with 43 points. They head to Chicago to play the Blackhawks Wednesday.