It might as well have been Game 6 of last April’s Western Conference quarterfinal the way tempers flared Friday when the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets reunited for the first time since their first-round matchup.
There were fierce body checks and reprisals. Helmets flying. Wild players brawling in the Jets bench. Ornery fans throwing debris on the ice. Referees booed mercilessly.
When the final exhausting seconds ticked to double zeros, Minnesota celebrated a 4-2 victory that was worth two points in the standings but priceless for the Wild’s collective psyche.
Eric Staal’s goal with 2 minutes, 31 seconds remaining completed the Wild’s rally from a 2-0 third-period deficit and let them exact a sliver of revenge after vanquishing their playoff tormentors in front of 19,116 untamed fans at Xcel Energy Center.
“That’s old-time hockey right there,” said Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau, his eyes twinkling. “That was fun.”
Boudreau would know having played an extra in “Slap Shot” and spending most of his career in the bawdy American Hockey League.
“Anytime you rally from two down in the third, it feels good,” he added. “I thought it was just a heck of a hockey game.”
The tension was palpable in the third period.
After Eric Fehr and Nino Niederreiter scored to tie the game, J.T. Brown checked Andrew Copp into the boards at the end of Winnipeg’s bench. Copp’s head slammed into the glass partition. The clean check left Copp dazed on the ice. He was helped to the dressing room and did not return.
Moments later, Adam Lowry rammed Jonathan Eriksson Ek into the glass. As he was going off for a line change, Lowry was confronted by Wild defenseman Nick Seeler. Lowry shoved Seeler through the open gate and he tumbled into a lions den of Jets players, who welcomed the opportunity to work over an opponent instead of helping him back onto the ice.
So Marcus Foligno jumped into the bench to rescue the out-numbered Seeler. Jordan Greenway also came to their aid, trying unsuccessfully to pull both teammates back over the boards to safety.
“Honestly, it was the weirdest thing,” Foligno said. “I think I blacked out. I looked up after I got off a dog pile and I realized I was right where their head coach usually stands, right in the middle of the bench. I was like, ‘Oh God, this is not good territory.’ But I think when Seels gets pushed in there, you gotta do something.”
When officials finally broke up the fracas, Lowry received a double minor for elbowing and roughing while coincidental roughing penalties were assessed to Seeler and Greenway. The crowd erupted, directly their angry boos at referees Kevin Pollock Corey Syvret.
“I didn’t necessarily like the hit on Ekker,” Seeler said. “After that, it just kind of happened quickly. Door was open, so I ended up getting in there. Sometimes that happens … I don’t know. There was a lot going on, but I’m just thankful we got the win.”
Seeler was asked if he had ever wound up in the opposing bench.
“That’s never happened. It was a first experience. But I guess you don’t really know what’s going to happen.”
Lowry provided more play-by-play than an explanation.
“I hit Eriksson high; it’s unintentional, but Seeler being a good teammate jumps in,” Lowry said. “Whoever was on our bench didn’t shut the gate so he goes in there, and I think there’s a few bodies in there.”
Only 46 seconds after the scuffle, Ryan Suter was penalized for roughing a Jets player in the corner, a call that further incensed the crowd. The Wild killed off the penalty. They snuffed four out of five man advantages for Winnipeg.
Meanwhile, the Wild finished 0-for-6 on the power play but still managed to win.
Staal’s goal, banging in a loose puck from underneath Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, proved cathartic for the team and their fans as Minnesota increased its lead over Winnipeg to four points in the Central Division.
“Two good teams. It was competitive the whole night,” said Staal. “It was a fun game to be a part of. Obviously being down like we were, and to be able to come back, adds a little more emotion and energy to it in our building.”
Patrick Laine initiated the scoring midway through the first period when he buried a juicy rebound by Alex Stalock after he had made a pad save on Tyler Myers.
With 1:03 remaining in the second period, Nikolaj Ehlers doubled Winnipeg’s lead on a power play. His shot from the right circle dribbled between Stalock’s legs.
At the other end, Hellebuyck was magnificent in the first two periods. He squared up to every shot, gobbling rebounds like they were Thanksgiving leftovers.
It took struggling Niederreiter of all players to break the ice. After gaining the zone, he cut across the ice to the left circle and unloaded a shot that snuck through Hellebuyck’s pads at 3:06.
The goal ended a 184-minute, 43-second shutout streak by Hellebuyck, who shut out Minnesota in Games 4 and 5 in the aforementioned series.
But it was Stalock who earned the win spelling Devan Dubnyk, who stayed home too sick to play.
“It was a huge win,” he said. “Obviously keeping it a two-point win too is huge. Our guys played so hard tonight, 60 minutes from the puck drop to all the way to the end. It’s one that brings a group together more so than we already are.”