As late as Thursday, after practice, Mikko Koivu was downplaying the rivalry with Chicago. At least at this point, early in the season. Any win is good, he said, every win counts, he insisted. But late Friday night, after the Wild had defeated Chicago 5-4 in front of a season-high crowd of 19,140 at Xcel Energy Center, Koivu smiled.
OK, so maybe he was fudging things a bit.
“For sure, it’s always good,’’ he admitted.
In the first meeting this season with the team that knocked the Wild out of the playoffs the past three seasons, in a game between two members of a Central Division that is already tight as a snare drum, the Wild scored very early, quite often and last while improving its home record to 5-0.
Five players scored for the Wild (7-2-1), which won for the fourth time in five games.
But it was the line of Koivu, Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter that both set the tone and sent Chicago home on a two-game losing streak.
Zucker scored 18 seconds into the game and Neiderreiter scored 32 seconds into the third, breaking a 4-4 tie. Then the Wild, which spent part of the evening being a bit sloppy with the puck and paying for it, locked down.
But it was costly. Forward Justin Fontaine was hurt after a knee-on-knee collision with Andrew Desjardins early in the second quarter on a play Wild coach Mike Yeo felt deserved a 5-minute major rather than a 2-minute minor. Yeo called the lower-body injury a “week-to-week’’ situation, which means the Wild will need to call up a forward before Saturday’s game in St. Louis.
Koivu assisted on both the Zucker and Neiderreiter goals also assisted on Charlie Coyle’s goal in the closing seconds of the first period that gave the Wild a 3-2 lead. Up 4-2 in the second, Chicago got goals from Jonathan Toews — who scored twice Friday — and Artem Ansimov to tie the game.
“We got a little loose with the puck,” coach Mike Yeo said. “It’s staying with that killer instinct, of keeping a team down, burying them. I don’t think we’ve been particularly great at that this year. But what we have been absolutely outstanding is, when there have been momentum shifts that have gone against us, we’ve collected ourselves and gotten back to our game.’’
Chicago had chances down the stretch. But goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who may have struggled early in the game, was in shut-down mode late, finishing with 25 saves on 29 shots.
There were plenty of momentum shifts in this one. Zucker provided the first, when he scored just 18 seconds in, his second goal in the first minute of a game this week. He got control of the puck in the right circle, spun and beat Scott Darling (30 shots, 25 saves) between his left skate and the post.
But, much like Sunday in Winnipeg, the Wild didn’t immediately build on it, allowing the Hawks take the lead with consecutive goals.
“It was the second time Zucks has scored early, and the other team has come back with a couple,’’ Ryan Carter said. “We have to find a way to stick with it.’’
This time they did. Carter’s goal from the slot after a nice feed from Erik Haula tied the game, then Coyle redirected a Marco Scandella shot to put the Wild up 3-2 after one.
And then, after that two-goal second-period lead evaporated? The Wild settled down, again.
“I think that’s our identity,” Koivu. “We need to be good defensively and trust that, if we do that, we’ll get our chances to create offense as well.’’
Bottom line, though, is another win, one that moved the Wild into a three-way tie for second with 15 points in the division, which boasts the top five records in the Western Conference.