Old-time hockey: Wild embraces rough stuff in impressive win over Jets

ST. PAUL — Wild coach Bruce Boudreau called it “old-time hockey,” and the kind of stuff he hadn’t seen in a long time. Wild goalie Alex Stalock said he feared for the guys on the Winnipeg Jets after two of his teammates ended up on the wrong bench. Wild defenseman Nick Seeler, who along with Marcus Foligno ended up trading punches with Jets players, simply referred to it as being “a little bit like playoff hockey.”

However you wanted to summarize what transpired in the third period on Friday afternoon at Xcel Energy Center, it was safe to say the season-high crowd of 19,116 who showed up in downtown St. Paul certainly got their money’s worth in the Wild’s 4-2 victory over the Jets.

“I thought it was just a heck of a hockey game,” Boudreau said. “Quite a difference in a) the crowd was really energized from the beginning, and I think it was more like a playoff game than it was like, say, taking nothing away from teams that we play in the Eastern Conference and stuff, but that’s what I thought. It was definitely a Central Division game.”

This marked the first of five meetings between the Wild and Jets this season, and their first matchup since Winnipeg eliminated Minnesota in five games in the opening round of the playoffs last spring. It looked as if the more physical Jets might again have their way with the Wild. With Minnesota starting goalie Devan Dubnyk home because of an illness, Alex Stalock got the start and the Wild trailed 2-0 after two periods as the Jets got goals from Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers.

The Wild was scoreless in five power-play opportunities after 40 minutes, and Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck had 23 saves and looked as if he would be nearly impossible to beat. But that changed when Nino Niederreiter scored his third goal of the season at 3:06 of the third period — Boudreau had moved Niederreiter to the fourth line in hopes of providing a spark — and then fourth-line center Eric Fehr scored off a Niederreiter setup at 11:47 to tie the score.

Things got really interesting shortly thereafter when Jets’ third-line center Adam Lowry buried his left elbow in Joel Eriksson Ek’s face along the far boards in the Winnipeg zone. That resulted in a delayed penalty against Lowry, but as action continued Seeler confronted Lowry in front of the Jets bench. Lowry shoved Seeler through the open door and into Winnipeg’s bench area and followed him in to continue the confrontation.

Foligno quickly jumped into the Jets bench to go after Lowry and Jordan Greenway leaned in himself as a mass of Winnipeg players surrounded the Minnesota duo. In front of the bench, Wild players who already were on the ice attempted to provide assistance.

“I didn’t necessarily like the hit on Ekker,” Seeler said. “After that it just kind of happened quickly, the door was open so I ended up getting in there. Sometimes that happens.”

Stalock, asked for his opinion of the situation, said: “(I was) fearful for their guys, that’s for sure. I know I wouldn’t want to be one of the guys on their team when Seels comes flying in and Moose, too.”

Referees Kevin Pollock and Corey Syvret attempted to sort things out and infuriated the Wild and their fans by giving Lowry elbowing and roughing penalties, but assessing Seeler and Greenway roughing penalties as well. That wiped out the Wild power play that had been expected.

“A lot of weird stuff can happen,” Boudreau said when asked if he was concerned to see his players end up on the opposing bench with punches being thrown. “That was old-time hockey right there. I don’t know? I want to see what the league says about that, about the fighting in the benches. It should be interesting.”

Those penalties were handed out at 14:29.

Things got worse when Wild defenseman Ryan Suter was called for roughing at 15:17 after taking out Ehlers in the corner to the right of Stalock. “I thought we should have come out better on the first one,” Boudreau said. “I don’t know what they were thinking on the Suter call. He did sort of wrap him up … I thought maybe (the referee) was just trying to settle everything down.”

The Wild — who ended up 0-for-6 on the power play and held the Jets to 1-for-4 with the man advantage — killed off  the penalty and as Suter stepped back on the ice, they headed up ice after winning a faceoff.

Defenseman Matt Dumba raced into the Winnipeg zone and took a shot that Hellebuyck stopped but failed to control. Eric Staal collected the rebound just before Hellebuyck could get a glove on it and put it into the Jets goal for the go-ahead score at 17:29. Zach Parise added an empty-net goal at 18:51 to give Minnesota four goals in the periods and its second consecutive late-game victory courtesy of a Staal goal.

“The whole night it was competitive and emotional but especially the third period,” said Staal, whose post-goal celebration was worthy of a playoff game. “Everybody’s engaged, the bench is engaged, the crowd is engaged, both teams competed really hard. Things happen in the game and you’ve got to do your best at times to keep an even-keel. Sometimes it’s more difficult than others, but you see that emotions sometimes spillover and it did in a couple of plays. At the end of the night, it was fortunate for us to be on the right side of it.”

It wasn’t difficult to tell that Boudreau was thrilled by Seeler and Folingo’s willingness to mix things up with the big bad Jets. Winnipeg’s physical style of play intimidates many opponents, but that wasn’t the case for the Wild. Minnesota’s victory over its Central Division rival kept the Wild in second place with 30 points, four more than Winnipeg.

Asked if he was encouraged by what he saw during the scuffle, Boudreau said:  “When you’re emotionally involved, I think you’re much better than when you’re not. It showed we were protecting our player by Seels going at Lowry a little bit. I don’t think it ever hurts as long as nobody gets hurt. It’s fun to talk about. …

“I haven’t seen any of that kind of stuff in a long time. I’m sure I’ll watch it again tonight on TV. It gets everybody — whether it’s the crowd, or whether it gets the players, or whether it gets the coaches — it gets them all revved up. That’s an emotional game that was fun.”

Nearly 20,000 paying customers who spent Friday at the X likely would agree.