EDMONTON, ALBERTA – They’re no longer division rivals, getting split up when the NHL dismantled the Northwest Division in 2013.
The battles that broke out when they met up during the regular season were months ago.
And there are no holdovers from the 2003 second-round playoff clash.
But literally seconds after the puck dropped on Game 1 at Rogers Place between the Wild and the Vancouver Canucks, the distaste was palpable — a rough-and-rowdy rift the Wild used to jump out to a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five matchup after a workmanlike 3-0 victory Sunday evening.
Now the challenge will be to keep that aggressiveness up the rest of the series, starting with Game 2 on Tuesday night.
“We played hockey the right way,” said winger Ryan Hartman, one of the Wild’s ringleaders. “We played really hard, and that’s playoff hockey. Not saying things shouldn’t be called, but that’s part of the game when playoffs are on the line. It’s hard, it’s gritty and it’s difficult to play if you’re not ready for the task.”
From the summertime return to the cavernous feel inside the arena without any fans filling the seats, there were plenty of reasons why the Wild might slowly develop an urgency in the qualifiers. But none applied.
“We were prepared, for sure,” Hartman said.
A fight between rugged winger Marcus Foligno and Vancouver’s Micheal Ferland just 1 minute, 19 seconds into the first period only kick-started the Wild even more, the bout uncorking raucous cheers from each team and raising the temperature in the building.
“Both benches, obviously, got up, and that’s the intensity of this,” goalie Alex Stalock said. “Fans, no fans, whatever. It’s two teams out there looking to move on, and our goal when we got up here was to move on. We’re not here to be up here for a week and get out of here.
“[Foligno] took it into his own hands and made a difference, and obviously we’re up in the series.”
Although the Canucks outhit the Wild 40-28 on the official score sheet, the game tape told a different story.
By constantly finishing their checks and closing the gap on the Canucks when Vancouver had the puck — as if a magnetic force field was pulling them there — Wild players frustrated the opposition and limited the number of clean looks the Canucks had on Stalock.
Vancouver’s top five scorers from the regular season — including Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes and J.T. Miller — combined for just six shots.
What made this grind even more impressive was that it wasn’t reckless. The Wild put Vancouver on the power play just once, late in the third period — a successful penalty kill that put the finishing touches on a disciplined win.
“If we’re going to have success,” coach Dean Evason said, “we have to continue to play that way.”
Already, the struggle between the Wild and Canucks has ended up on the NHL’s Department of Player Safety’s radar.
Near the halfway point of the third, Ferland speared Hartman while Hartman was on the Wild’s bench after Luke Kunin (who was also on the Wild’s bench) held on to Ferland’s stick.
Ferland was penalized for slashing, and the Wild received a bench minor for interference. But on Monday, the league fined Ferland $5,000 for spearing — the maximum allowable under the collective bargaining agreement — and Kunin was dinged with a $1,000 fine for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“Out of our control,” Evason said when asked if he was surprised Ferland wasn’t suspended for the dangerous play. “I don’t really have an opinion one way or another. We’re getting ready for next game.”
The clean and the chippy
Hartman could continue to set a physical tone.
He had the best hit of the night, a shoulder check on Christopher Tanev in the corner that jostled Tanev’s helmet and scattered the Canucks defenseman’s hair over his eyes — a disheveled look that went viral on social media.
Even after the spear from Ferland, Hartman still had Vancouver’s attention with its top agitator, Antoine Roussel, trying to instigate action at the faceoff circle in the final minute of play. Roussel was shown the exit, getting slapped with a 10-minute misconduct.
“Emotions run high in playoffs games, especially Game 1,” said Hartman, who signed a two-year, $3.8 million contract with the Wild last summer and had 13 games of postseason experience with Chicago and Nashville coming into the series. “We have guys on the ice that can do it, that can handle it, and everyone handled it perfectly letting them complain … and we responded by coming back harder and keeping the pressure on.
“So, I think we did a great job of keeping an even keel throughout the whole game. We’re looking to do that throughout the whole series.”
Playing with an edge
Confrontation-style hockey certainly suits Hartman, bloodied by a high stick early in the game. He’s a prototype playoff performer, like Foligno.
But they weren’t the only ones pestering the Canucks, a teamwide commitment that highlighted another tug-of-war the Wild prevailed in, and that’s the depth battle.
High-profile players like Kevin Fiala, Jared Spurgeon and Stalock did their jobs, but so did the supporting cast — with Foligno’s third line shifting momentum and Hartman’s fourth-line trio with captain Mikko Koivu and Ryan Donato frequently matching up against Vancouver’s No. 1 line.
The spotlight isn’t going to shy away from either team’s offensive leaders, but the fight in the trenches may be just as important. It was in Game 1, and the Wild had the advantage.
“The guys are playing so hard and so hard for each other,” Evason said. “There was an edge. I think that’s exciting for people to watch. I know it’s exciting to coach. And I’m sure it’s extremely exciting to play.”