Jets fans travel in droves, jeer Josh Harding to no avail in Wild win
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Having a gaggle of Winnipeg fans invade Xcel Energy Center is nothing new. It started even before their team had a name. On a hot June night in 2011, St. Paul hosted the NHL Draft, and the folks in Manitoba's provincial capital knew they had a team, but didn't know what that team would be called. Even so, they came to town by seemingly the busload, and erupted when one of the team's owners - who purchased the moribund Atlanta Thrashers and moved them way, way north - announced that the franchise would have a familiar name; the Jets.
With an actual team to cheer for, and an actual game to be played on Sunday inside that same St. Paul rink, the corner of Kellogg and West Seventh was again the place to be for thousands in navy blue. Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding had likely never before been taunted in his own building, but that was the scene from the start as throngs of Jets fans chanted and cheered and jeered for 60 minutes, barely seeming to notice that the Wild scored late to win 2-1, improving to 10-1-2 at home.
It was a scene not unfamiliar to Wild star Zach Parise, who spent the first part of his career with the New Jersey Devils, and routinely found themselves playing de facto road games in their own building when the greater New York City region's most popular team, the New York Rangers, would come to Newark.
"It was very similar," Parise said, after assisting on Mikko Koivu's first goal and nearly assisting on Koivu's third goal. "You don't expect your own goalie to get taunted in your own rink, but that's what happened."
Koivu scored the game-winner with just more than three minutes to play in the third. With Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec on the bench in the final minute of the game, Parise had a chance at an empty net goal, but instead tried to pass to Koivu, hoping to set up a hat trick for his linemate.
"You don't get a chance to get a hat trick too often," said Parise. "So I tried to get one over to him but I think I led him too far. I tried to get him a chance to get the third one."
The way Harding is playing, razzing or no, hat tricks against him are going to be hard to come by. On Sunday his 21 saves helped him improve to 10-0-0 at home, and he's leading the NHL in most categories.
"I'm kind of running out of things to say," Wild coach Mike Yeo said, when asked about Harding. "He keeps going out. It's amazing what that does to your group when your goalie's playing like that, the confidence it gives you to play your game."
If the army of Jets fans was hoping to rattle the Wild goalie, they may have had the opposite effect.
"They have some loyal fans. It's so exciting playing in that game. The atmosphere is incredible," Harding said. "It almost feels like you're in a playoff game. I don't know if I've ever been taunted that much in a home game. ... If I let that get to me, I have some problems."
Barring a playoff series, the Wild won't see the Jets in St. Paul again this season, although they'll visit Winnipeg on Friday, in late December and in early April. And thus three more chapters will be written in what has become the region's newest and perhaps most fun sports rivalry. On Sunday, when the "Go Jets Go" chant started even before the teams hit the ice for warmups, the arena music folks perhaps sought to mellow out the Manitobans, playing the 1980s classic "Crush On You" by, yep, The Jets over the public address. It didn't work, and the chant, countered with somewhat louder chants of "Let's Go Wild" continued throughout.
"That was awesome. It was almost the louder they got, the louder our fans got and they took turns," Parise said. "From the start that made it a really good atmosphere and a really fun atmosphere. I think it's going to be a really good rivalry for a long time between the teams. It was a fun building to play in."
When the fans are loud, the opponents are feisty, and you almost never lose, what's not to like about playing at home?