The Wild might be the best home team in the NHL, but it sure felt like a road game Sunday night.
Rowdy Winnipeg Jets fans flocked down to St. Paul by the busloads, cleaned out the Wild and local brokers of thousands of tickets and tried to overtake Xcel Energy Center.
Fans wearing blue and white BYFUGLIEN, WHEELER and KANE jerseys flooded the arena, roared, “GO JETS GO!!!” and even taunted Wild goaltender Josh Harding by making his last name reverberate: HARD-ING, HARD-ING, HARD-ING.
But Wild captain Mikko Koivu shut them up temporarily with a first-period goal and permanently with a third-period goal as his red-hot team improved to 7-0-1 this month with a 2-1 victory.
“Our fans responded well as usual,” Koivu said after his 13th career two-goal game. “It was a fun game to be in. If that doesn’t get you into the game, then you should not even be here.”
Wild fans booed Jets fans mercifully, then began trying to one-up the Winnipeg loudmouths with “Let’s Go Wild!” chants. Wild fans got the last laugh with an eruption with 3 minutes, 12 seconds left.
Eight seconds after Koivu won a faceoff, he one-timed Charlie Coyle’s pass from the left circle past Ondrej Pavelec after Coyle won a puck battle in the corner with defenseman Keaton Ellerby.
The Wild, winner of six in a row at home and 10 of its past 11 at the X, improved to 10-1-2 in its past 13 overall, 10-1-2 at home and swept its three-game homestand. Minnesota now hits the road for four, including a Saturday matinée rematch in Winnipeg.
“It was almost the louder [Jets fans] got, the louder our fans got in return,” said Zach Parise, who assisted on Koivu’s first goal. “From the start, it really made it a really fun atmosphere. … You don’t expect your own goalie to get taunted in your own rink.”
It didn’t bother Harding, who could have taken a snooze in the first period when the Wild surrendered two shots on goal. But when his teammates fell asleep at the switch in the second, Harding made 14 of his 21 stops.
It included a highlight-reel glove save to rob sharpshooting defenseman Dustin Byfuglien. “Big Buff,” who lives in the Twin Cities in the offseason and skates with many Wild players every August, gave Harding a respectful stick tap to the pads afterward.
Harding, 9-0-2 since Oct. 17, improved to 12-2-2 and leads the NHL with a 1.25 goals-against average and .946 save percentage. He improved to 10-0 at home with a 1.15 goals-against average.
“I’m kind of running out of things to say,” coach Mike Yeo said. “It’s amazing what that does your group when your goalie’s playing like that.”
On being taunted, Harding laughed, saying: “They have some loyal fans. If I let that get to me, I have some problems.”
Harding, as usual, credited his teammates (Ryan Suter blocked seven shots in 30-plus minutes). “The guys are taking care of everything in front of me,” he said.
The Wild is the best defensive team in the Western Conference, giving up 1.95 goals per game and a league-best 24 shots per game. The team has surrendered a league-low 19 goals at 5-on-5.
“They’re not the most fun team to play against, and that’s a compliment,” said Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler, who assisted on Byfuglien’s goal 54 seconds into the third and had a game-high eight shots. “They’re really structured, they play their system to a T.”
For the second game in a row, the Wild dominated the first before getting sloppy in the second. For the second game in a row, the Wild escaped with two points.
“We kind of took our foot off the gas, but good teams bounce back,” said defenseman Marco Scandella, who had an assist and is plus-9 the past 15 games.