ST. PAUL, MINN. — First, they stifled the Winnipeg Jets fans.
And then they stifled the Winnipeg Jets.
The Minnesota Wild put on a smothering exhibition of hockey against the Jets at Xcel Energy Center Sunday night, devising a gimmick to take visiting Jets fans out of the game and then doing the same for their team with good, old-fashioned defensive play.
By night’s end, the latter plan worked better than the former — there was no shutting up the thousands of Jets fans who made this trip south, although the Wild tried, with a French version of the Canadian anthem to start the night that was clearly aimed at trying to prevent the visitors from shouting out their presence in the arena with a trademark shout of "True North."
But on the ice, the Wild executed a scheme to silence the Jets players to near perfection, holding Winnipeg to just two shots in the first period and then earning a hard-fought 2-1 victory with a late third-period goal.
The Jets loss snapped a four-game winning streak for Winnipeg and dropped them back to .500 for the season at 10-10-2.
After the game, Jets players were left to wonder what might have been after the second consecutive 2-1 loss to the Wild this season.
"Tonight’s a game we could have won," said centre Bryan Little. "We had a pretty slow start in the first period, but we were a few minutes away from forcing another overtime. And we’ve been pretty hot there."
The Jets had three straight shootout wins coming into Sunday night.
A Dustin Byfuglien deflection of a Little shot just 54 seconds into the third period tied the game 1-1, but the Jets could not close the deal and yielded the game-winner at 16:48 of the third when Minnesota’s Mikko Koivu scored his second of the game.
The loss dropped Winnipeg’s record against Central Division opponents to just 3-8-1, something that’s going to have to improve dramatically if Winnipeg intends to be in the playoff conversation come season’s end.
But Jets forward Blake Wheeler thinks his team’s record against division rivals thus far is misleading.
"I like the way we play against these teams. I argue we have the toughest division in hockey and I haven’t been a part of a game yet where I felt outmatched," said Wheeler.
"I feel like we’re every bit as good as even the best teams in our league."
Buff on a roll
With another goal Sunday, Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien has now scored three goals in his last two games and four goals in his last four games.
Add to that a goal against the Nashville Predators he had taken away and it would seem he has safely excised that goal-scoring monkey from his back this month.
Little, who took the third-period shot that Byfuglien was credited with deflecting into the Wild net, was asked if he thought Byfuglien actually touched the puck.
"He probably says he did," Little grinned. "If he wants it that bad, he can take it."
Ellerby Steps In
With Zach Bogosian week-to-week with a groin injury, waiver pickup Keaton Ellerby stepped up Sunday night to take Bogosian’s customary spot next to regular defensive partner Toby Enstrom.
Ellerby finished the night minus-2, but was serviceable in playing just over 22 minutes, said his head coach.
"I thought Ellerby was real good. I thought he played smart," said Noel. "He moved the puck. It didn’t look like the extra minutes was an issue. I thought he was smart, managed it well."
While they lost on the road Sunday night, they have another winning streak that they will take into their game tonight at the MTS Centre against the Calgary Flames — a four-game home winning streak.
After having started the last five games in a row for Winnipeg, it’s widely expected Noel will give goaltender Ondrej Pavelec the night off against the Flames in favour of backup Al Montoya.