There are some rivalries that almost seem manufactured to live up to the hype. That’s definitely not the case when it comes to the Wild and Colorado Avalanche, the two NHL Northwest Division leftovers in the Central Division.
These combatants, who will face off for a fifth and final time this season Sunday at Xcel Energy Center, genuinely dislike each other.
“Even the fans seem to hate each other,” defenseman Jared Spurgeon said.
Asked if there’s as much hate on the ice as it appears from the stands, Zach Parise smiled widely.
“It’s a good rivalry and it’s getting better by the game,” Parise said, choosing to be diplomatic even through his grin. “You can tell throughout the season, the physicality of each game has gone up every time we’ve played them.”
On Feb. 28, the only thing that kept the Wild from shutting Colorado out for a fourth consecutive time this season was a bad bounce off the glass that resulted in a goal that arguably should have been waved off because Public Enemy No. 1, Cody McLeod, pushed Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk into the net.
McLeod, the redheaded, hard-nosed, trash-talking agitator, ended the game in unsportsmanlike fashion by jumping undersized skilled forward Mikael Granlund off a faceoff, then fighting Charlie Coyle.
Parise said no doubt McLeod will hear it from Wild fans Sunday: “We’ve got some pretty loyal fans and good fans. I assume they watched the game.”
Following last weekend’s contest that often saw tensions boil over and ultimately fines levied against McLeod and Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog, Parise, behind a sinister grin, took one doozy of a potshot, saying, “I’d probably be frustrated too if we played a team and hadn’t scored on them in four games except on a dump-in.”
The Wild has had the Avalanche’s number since Game 3 of last year’s first-round playoff series. The Wild has won seven of the past eight meetings, including rallying four times to win Game 7 and advance to the second round.
Parise said a series sweep is Sunday’s sole motivation.
“As far as we’re concerned, [last week’s game is] over,” Parise said. “We’ll just try to play well against them again and frustrate them. It’s not beneficial for us to get ourselves involved with any of that.”
The rivalry has built throughout the years in part because Minnesota has played Colorado in three of its four all-time playoff berths. One of the great dramas is the disdain Landeskog and the Wild’s Mikko Koivu, Landeskog’s captain counterpart, have for each other. They battle intensely every game, and in the heat of the moment last weekend, Landeskog swiped at Koivu from bench to bench to earn a $5,000 fine.
“Five grand, he should have hit him. Make it worth it at least,” Avalanche coach Patrick Roy, laughing, joked.
Every Wild-Avs game, there are skirmishes, big runs and dirty hits, and the Avalanche still is upset that now-injured Matt Cooke knocked defenseman Tyson Barrie out of last year’s playoffs with a knee-on-knee hit that earned Cooke a seven-game suspension.
After last Saturday’s game, Wild coach Mike Yeo called what McLeod did to Granlund “garbage.” Friday, Roy countered, “To me, garbage is what Cooke did to Barrie.”
Roy, like Yeo, said the Avs will hit the ice Sunday intent on winning a hockey game. “Revenge,” Roy said, for the Cooke-Barrie incident has not been in Colorado’s game plan or “we would have done something way before” the McLeod-Granlund incident.
McLeod, 30, has run around against the Wild for seven years, going after everyone from Marian Gaborik to Eric Belanger. The most infamous of his runs came after Christmas in 2011. Flying in on the forecheck, McLeod put his forearm across the bottom of Spurgeon’s No. 46 and rode the smallish defenseman violently into the wall.
McLeod wasn’t disciplined, but Spurgeon was concussed.
“He seems to always finish checks on the smaller guys, but we try not to let it bug us,” said Spurgeon, close to returning from another concussion. “It gets you a little motivated too just to try to beat them that much more if they’re trying to pick on smaller guys.”
Even though the Wild is not a physically imposing team, Spurgeon says the Wild never cowers in these type of contests. In fact, Spurgeon said, “We have a tough group in a different way than beating guys up. We don’t shy away. It gets us more engaged.”
Still, two days after McLeod went after Granlund, the Wild tried to toughen up by acquiring power forward Chris Stewart, McLeod’s former Avs teammate who has gotten into 39 career scraps. McLeod leads the NHL with 17 fights this season.
“I know [McLeod] off the ice and he’s a good guy, but at the end of the day when the puck drops, there’s definitely no friends out there,” Stewart said. “I remember the Minnesota rivalry well playing in Colorado. These are usually rougher games. Emotions will be dialed up.”
Dubnyk, the Wild’s life force through an 18-3-2 run since Jan. 15 who lost his temper with McLeod last Saturday, expects another chippy rematch Sunday and “we’ll do our best to give [our fans] something to cheer about.”
“It’s going to be physical,” Dubnyk said. “They’re going to be hitting guys, taking bodies. That’s how they’ve been playing. It’s going to be a playoff-type game, and it is a playoff-type game for both teams. Both teams need the points badly.
“I’m sure there will be some spillover from [last Saturday’s] game, too. That makes it fun. We were all talking about it after last game just how good that one felt to be in a playoff-type game and come out on top. We’ll expect nothing less Sunday.”