WINNIPEG – The Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets will be seeing much more of each other next season. On Tuesday night, they planted the seeds for what could be an intense rivalry.
The first meeting between the clubs needed little time to turn testy between the teams who will be conference rivals. For now, the teams have to settle for merely getting acquainted with each other before next season, when they embark on developing a cross-border feud as each other's nearest geographical rival.
The teams played a physical, goaltending-heavy affair that Jets coach Claude Noel termed "like a playoff game" that held at 1-1 deep into the third period. But Bryan Little continued his offensive resurgence, converting a pass from Dustin Byfuglien with five minutes remaining just as a delay-of-game to Minnesota's Clayton Stoner expired as the Jets earned a 2-1 victory at a raucous MTS Centre.
"It's one of those games where I felt like I was missing everything," said Little, who had generated several prime scoring chances. "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 then faced down a Minnesota power play for the final 1:06 of play after Zach Bogosian's boarding major for a hit on Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec stopped three Minnesota shots in the closing 48 seconds to pull out the win over the Western Conference-leading Wild.
Little's goal snapped Minnesota's (20-8-3) seven-game winning streak, as well as a run of seven consecutive road wins. The Jets (14-12-4) have now won five straight at home and eight of their last nine home contests. Both Minnesota and Boston have seen long undefeated runs end in Winnipeg.
"I think it proves to teams that we're up there," Little said, "and we can play with the best teams in the League. Especially in our arena, we wanted to make this a tough arena to come play in and to beat those teams in our building is huge for the confidence."
Seventeen of Minnesota's 31 games this season have been one-goal games, and the Wild had won nine straight one-goal decisions before facing the Jets. Minnesota also entered the game 19-1-0 in games in which it had allowed two or fewer goals.
Winnipeg also received a goal from Bogosian to go with a 34-save performance from Pavelec, whom the Detroit Red Wings had throttled in a 7-1 Jets loss on Saturday night.
"We battled so hard tonight," Pavelec said. "It wasn't easy. [Minnesota] is a really tough team to play against. We battled tonight. We battled all game long."
Dany Heatley, the latest target of MTS Centre's boo-birds, celebrated his 700th NHL game with an assist on Minnesota's only goal, a second-period strike from Guillaume Latendresse. Little's goal dented an excellent performance from Minnesota's Nicklas Backstrom, who delivered another solid performance for the Wild in steering aside 25 of 27 that he faced.
"We didn't play [well] enough today," Backstrom said. "They were better, and we got a little bit lucky in the second period and thought we played okay, but, you know, it's not good enough for us."
Backstrom faced heavy Winnipeg pressure at several junctures, and Minnesota coach Mike Yeo did not like to see his club trading chances with the Jets.
"I thought we were pretty loose in a lot in a of areas, in particular with how we played with the puck," Yeo said. "It just lead to a little too much open ice for them and a little too much back-and-forth, and when you do that, you turn it into a 50-50, game which is what it was."
"There does come a time where, like it or not, it's tough to keep your urgency level up as high as it is," Yeo continued, "and keep the same focus going into every game, and I didn't feel like we had it tonight."
Both teams juggled line-ups again as they continue to face injury woes. Center Matt Cullen (flu) did not dress for the Wild, but Minnesota did regain the services of Latendresse after the left wing had missed 15 games with a concussion. Winnipeg had to do without forwards Nikolai Antropov and Alexander Burmistrov up front, but finally had veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey back in the line-up after a two-month absence. Eric Fehr also returned to action after missing five games.
Early on, Minnesota held off a Winnipeg team that has been very dangerous in first periods and fond of pouncing on opponents, particularly on home ice, scoring 34 of their 83 goals in the opening 20 minutes of games this season.
Then consecutive Winnipeg penalties in the offensive zone and neutral zone, respectively, set up a 39-second two-man advantage for the Wild early in the second period. Moments after Heatley nearly beat Pavelec from the left circle before ripping another long shot off the post, Mikko Koivu put another shot on Pavelec that the goaltender stopped. But Latendresse snuck into the low slot and swatted the loose puck past Pavelec at 4:39. The goal was Latendresse's first since Nov. 8 at Calgary, but he has scored in four of the past five games in which he has appeared in the lineup.
Winnipeg immediately responded with heavy offensive pressure for the next four minutes. Little broke in on Backstrom but could not tuck a shot past the goaltender, and Carl Klingberg's wraparound failed as well. Bogosian finally cracked Backstrom on a failed Minnesota clear along the right boards, settling down the puck just inside the blue line before cranking a long shot that rose on Backstrom. Bogosian's marker broke a 42-game stretch without a goal.
"I really liked the fact that when they scored, we really stepped up our forecheck," Noel said. "We almost played angry that they got the first goal, and we really battled hard to get the second one that we eventually got."
Minnesota departed after the game for home, where they face the Chicago Blackhawks in a battle of the top two teams in the Western Conference.
"We lost the two points tonight, and that's it," Latendresse said. "We need to keep working, keep improving."