ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Before Sunday night's Northwest Division clash between the Minnesota Wild and Vancouver Canucks, Wild coach Mike Yeo reminded, "They're not handing out first prize in our division tonight."
Too bad. The Wild certainly played with the type of fire that made it seem a banner-raising was up for grabs. Instead, the Wild merely settled for taking over first place in the division with a 4-2 victory over a detested rival.
The Wild hit the season's halfway mark with a 13-9-2 record and road/home wins on consecutive nights. Zach Parise scored two goals and an assist, Jared Spurgeon scored a goal and assist, Jason Zucker scored a goal, Ryan Suter assisted on two and Niklas Backstrom made 25 saves to get the personal back-to-back sweep.
The Wild, tied with Vancouver with 28 points but on top in the standings because it has more regulation/overtime wins, is 9-2-1 at home and was bestowed with several rousing ovations from its appreciative fans Sunday.
That's because the Wild's work ethic, especially considering the team arrived back in the Twin Cities in the wee hours of Sunday morning after beating Nashville in a shootout, was visible to the naked eye.
Sweat poured off players during an action-packed, physical, intense affair.
Things got hairy after Chris Higgins scored in the second period. The Wild failed to capitalize on three 2-on-1's, which allowed it to become a game when a fluke puck deflected in off Henrik Sedin's skate 62 seconds into the third.
But Parise scored again at 6:49 following a spectacular shift by rookie Charlie Coyle.
He singlehandedly allowed the Wild to execute a line change. Coyle, deep in the offensive zone, held onto the puck as Dan Hamhuis and Jason Garrison tried to sandwich him. Hamhuis fell. Then, Coyle evaded Mason Raymond, got rid of the puck as Jannik Hansen arrived and the forecheck was on. Coyle finally brushed by Jordan Schroeder to pass to Ryan Suter, who set up the Parise's 11th goal and a big sigh of relief for the Wild and its fans.
Yeo vowed two hours before the game that "we're ready to put a lot on the line tonight."
After two losses in Anaheim and a bad loss last week in Chicago, the Wild, with points in 10 of its past 15 games (9-4-1), still had something to prove against a quality, yet struggling opponent. It also was playing a Canucks team that had beaten it twice this season.
The Wild's fire was immediately displayed 24 seconds in when Mikko Koivu set up Parise. The rest of period featured catch-your-breath action at both ends of the rink, hard hits and downright nastiness.
It started, fittingly enough, with 9:11 left when Koivu took exception to longtime Canucks agitator Alex Burrows slashing him across the left leg. An intense stick-jostling duel followed as players converged. Cal Clutterbuck got into it with Alex Edler, Justin Falk with Daniel Sedin. And Koivu and Burrows, chirping at each other, had to be separated by a linesman. Burrows took off his helmet at one point and asked Koivu "to go."
The penalties evened out, with five players going to the two penalty boxes. Less than a minute later, Mike Rupp and Tom Sestito had a heavyweight bout with Rupp at one point ripping Sestito's helmet off as the two threw haymakers. At one point, five Wild players crammed into the penalty box. The Wild killed off two consecutive penalties before Zucker's fourth goal.
Zucker fought off a hook at the top of the left circle to drop a puck below the goal line for Matt Cullen. The veteran wheeled past Garrison to the opposite side of the net and whizzed a cross-crease pass for Zucker's tap-in.
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