ST. PAUL — The Wild entered Sunday riding a three-game winning streak and with an opportunity to move into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Not bad for a team that fired its head coach, Bruce Boudreau, in mid-February and at various times this season had looked hopeless.
What stood between the Wild and the ability to leapfrog Nashville, Winnipeg and Arizona in the standings was one of the best teams in the NHL, the Washington Capitals, and future Hall of Famer winger Alex Ovechkin. A week earlier, the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues had come to St. Paul after the Wild won back-to-back road games at Vancouver and Edmonton and delivered a dose of reality to interim coach Dean Evason’s club.
On Sunday, it was the Capitals turn to remind the Wild that consecutive victories over Columbus, Detroit and Columbus are nice but not the same as beating a top team. Ovechkin scored two goals in the first period (the first coming on a 5-on-3 power play), Richard Panik added another and Tom Wilson beat Wild goalie Alex Stalock for the eventual winner in the third period of a 4-3 victory. That gave Ovechkin 17 goals and 12 assists in 17 career games against Minnesota.
Ryan Donato, Kevin Fiala and Zach Parise scored for the Wild but that wasn’t enough in a hard-fought and entertaining game played before an announced crowd of 17,388 that included many Capitals and No. 8 Ovechkin jerseys. (Three Capitals: T.J. Oshie, Nick Jensen and Nic Dowd have Minnesota ties.)
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Parise, whose power-play goal in the third period pulled the Wild within one, acknowledged there was a different feeling in a building that has mostly lacked excitement all season. Some of that enthusiasm was a result of all the fans who wanted to see Ovechkin and Co., and some of it was the fact the Wild had gone 5-2 since Evason took over and found themselves fighting for a playoff spot.
“There was a different buzz in the building,” Parise said. “Maybe it’s because we crawled ourselves back into contention. There was a little more excitement in the building. It was a different atmosphere at home than it had been the last few games.”
That enthusiasm led to plenty of intensity between two teams that have no real history against each other. There were plenty of after-the-whistle skirmishes and Wild winger Ryan Hartman and Capitals defenseman Brenden Dillon engaged in what turned into a pretty good fight late in the first period.
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“It’s two big teams, too,” Wild winger Marcus Foligno said. “I think Hartsy did a great job stepping up. We had some good hits and they had some hits, too. It was a good hockey game. That’s what you’re going to expect from now until the end of the season with teams kind of in that race. They had some teams in the East lose and I’m sure they were feeling that they want to get to the top and we’re trying to get in. It’s going to have emotions and it’s going to be like that for the next 16 games.”
The Wild actually have 17 games remaining in the regular season, including eight at home. The next one will be Tuesday night when Minnesota plays host to Nashville for the first of three remaining meetings between the teams, including another at the X on March 15 and the regular-season finale on April 4 in Nashville. The Predators remain a point ahead of the Wild and will play host to Edmonton on Monday night before coming to Minnesota.
What should make this even more fun is how well former Predator Kevin Fiala has played for Minnesota, his goal on Sunday was his 20th, and the fact the guy he was traded for, Mikael Granlund, also has played better of late for Nashville. Granlund has nine of his 17 goals on the season since late January.
“They’re a hot team right now,” Donato said of the Predators (6-3-1 in their past 10). “Coming off a loss is tough, but I think we’ve reacted well to losses before. We know how important each and every game is and we’ve got to show up for that one because they’re another talented team that can easily win against us if we don’t show up.”
It wasn’t that the Wild failed to show up on Sunday, it was just that they faced a team that simply was better.
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