ST. PAUL, Minn. – Sure, the season has barely begun. The Minnesota Wild were still a bit anxious, having lost their first three games.
This time, they produced the start-to-finish, end-to-end performance they’ve been seeking.
Matt Cooke had a goal and an assist, and Josh Harding made 14 saves for the Wild in a 2-1 victory on Thursday night over the Winnipeg Jets, their newest rival in the recreated Central Division.
“I think it’s natural to have, for lack of a better word, a panic, but I think if you honestly looked at those games in an unbiased way we carried the play for most of it each game,” Cooke said.
The Wild lost all three games by one goal, two after regulation ended. Though they clung to a one-goal lead all night, they outshot the Jets 30-15 and were in control the whole time. They set a franchise record by winning 74 per cent of the faceoffs, 45 of 61.
“It’s the little things that add up to make a difference, and that’s what we saw,” coach Mike Yeo said.
Jonas Brodin scored first for the Wild on Ondrej Pavelec, who stopped 28 shots. He has played all four games for the Jets and allowed 12 goals, but he didn’t have any help in this one.
“We never start with the puck,” coach Claude Noel said. “We chased pretty much the whole night and never created very much through the neutral zone.”
Bryan Little’s goal in the final minute of the first period during a 5-on-3 power play tied the game for the Jets, who played their second road game of the season. After scoring five goals in each of their first two games, the Jets have only three goals and 32 shots over their last two contests.
“We’re trying to be too cute. We’re at our best when pucks are deep and we can work off the forecheck,” said right wing Devin Setoguchi, facing his former team for the first time.
Though Chicago is closer to Minnesota by car, Winnipeg is the nearest as-the-crow-flies city to St. Paul. The Manitobans don’t miss an opportunity to take advantage of the proximity and root in person for their Jets on the road.
Chants of “Let’s go Jets!” were rampant up to and after the opening faceoff, particularly after Little knocked in the rebound of Tobias Enstrom’s shot with 42.8 seconds left in the first period.
But the Wild were hit with penalties on Brodin (holding) and Kyle Brodziak (hooking) within 4 seconds of each other to set up that Jets goal, but beyond that they were nearly flawless. Winnipeg was listless at times.
“I don’t think we had a lot of jump,” captain Andrew Ladd said. “They do a pretty good job of clogging up the neutral zone, and to get shots you have to get pucks back.”
Puck possession is precisely what Yeo emphasized in training camp. That was a weakness last season.
The Wild have outshot their opponent in every game, including 54-19 in the second period.
“We’re getting good opportunities. Pucks are going to keep finding our sticks. We’ve just got to bear down and put them in,” left wing Zach Parise said.
Yeo shuffled the lineup, moving Jason Pominville to the second line and Nino Niederreiter to the first line while sending his Cooke-led third line out to start the game. Cooke assisted on Brodin’s goal, taking the shot that the second-year defenceman poked in with the shaft of his stick.
Then the 35-year-old left wing swooped in after a shot by Torrey Mitchell to knock a rebound under Pavelec’s pad for a 2-1 lead.
“We want to be at the net. We want to go at the net. We want to go to those tough areas. I want to be there as much as I can,” Cooke said.
Harding replaced Niklas Backstrom 12 minutes into the first period at Nashville on Tuesday night after Backstrom hurt his knee. Harding, the reigning Masterton Trophy winner after overcoming a multiple sclerosis diagnosis last year, gave up just one goal on 20 shots in 48 minutes against the Predators. He was sharp again against Winnipeg.
NOTES: Little lost 19 of 20 faceoffs. … Dustin Byfuglien had an assist for the Jets, his fifth of the season. Little has three goals, including one point in each game, and Enstrom has five assists. … Brodin has two goals, matching his rookie total in 45 games last season.