Not long after the Wild completed a season-opening two-game sweep of the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings over the weekend, a reporter asked center Ryan Hartman about his excitement for Tuesday’s home opener at the Xcel Energy Center.
Maybe still exhausted from the game, Hartman racked his brain for a few seconds before admitting, “I don’t even know who we’re playing.” His answer provided some laughs from within the scrum before a reporter informed Hartman that the Wild would, in fact, be playing the rival Winnipeg Jets on home ice.
While the exchange itself was pretty funny in hindsight, it also provided a friendly reminder that it has been nearly two years since the Wild have played the team that was becoming their biggest rival until COVID altered life as we know it.
You have to go back to Jan. 4, 2020 to find the last game between the Wild and Jets. Eric Staal scored the game-winner in overtime with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter providing the assists on the play. None of them are still in Minnesota. How’s that for a blast from the past?
As for whether the rivalry will pick up right where it left off despite so much time away, not to mention so many new faces, winger Marcus Foligno seemed confident that the animosity will come back as soon as the puck is dropped.
“It’s always heated games against them,” Foligno said. “Since that playoff series against them (in 2018), it’s picked up, and they still have some of the guys from that playoff series. It will be a big game for us.”
As much as the Wild are excited to play the Jets, specifically, they also are excited to see a new opponent in general. Remember, the Wild played in the West Coast division last season due to COVID restrictions, and thus, exclusively played games against division foes Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, San Jose, St. Louis and Vegas. That got old.
“I think we played 65 straight games, if we count the playoffs, against the same teams,” goaltender Cam Talbot said, adding that the format reminded him of his days playing for the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League. “It does get a little bit redundant. It’s nice to be able to branch out and travel to other cities and play other teams.”
That feeling resonated throughout the Wild locker room last season. Though it never got to the point where the Wild were simply going through the motions on the ice, there were some nights where it felt too much like a grind.
“There were some fireworks in some games and then some games kind of felt like just blah,” Foligno said. “It’s tiring to see the same guys over and over again. You want some new blood.”
The intensity the Wild brought against the Ducks and Kings in California to open the season should be ramped up even more against the Jets.
“Everybody’s excited to be back, right?” coach Dean Evason said. “There’s some nice animosity early in the season here that’s fun to watch, fun to coach, and I’m sure fun to play.”
The home opener also will mark the first time that the X is back to full capacity since the pandemic began. That’s another reason for the Wild to be pumped up for the game against the Jets.
“Everyone in our room is excited right now,” Foligno said. “I think there’s a buzz around us this season. And winning our first two games I think our fans are going to be extra excited and expecting us to win (our home opener) just like we do ourselves. It’s going to be fun. Maybe a little bit of jitters. There’s always those little first-game jitters when you come back for the home opener. We hope to get rid of those quickly and pick up where we left off.”