St. Paul, Minn. — The day began with the National Hockey League assessing $25,000 in fines against the Wild as punishment for a series of fights that marred the conclusion of Minnesota's game two victory in Vancouver.
As the Northwest Division rivals moved the series to Minnesota, some hockey insiders suspected the players might still hold a grudge in the wake of their British Columbian brawl. It took precisely seven seconds for that hunch to prove true. That's how much time elapsed before the Wild's Matt Johnson began trading punches at center ice with the Canucks' Brad May.
The fighting penalties they received started a parade of 16 trips to the penalty box. There were no other fights, though, as the officials' quick and frequent whistles kept confrontations from escalating. Wild defenseman Nick Schultz says the referees calls seemed to affect both teams equally.
"Maybe they were trying to keep everything tight from last game. They called it both ways, so you can't complain. Both teams had an equal number of power plays so you can't say either team had an advantage," Schultz said after the game.
The Canucks, though, converted one more power play goal than the Wild. That proved to be the difference in a game in which the teams were never more than a goal apart.
Minnesota defenseman Willie Mitchell says the Wild played better at full strength than they had during the first two games in Vancouver. But the abundance of penalties meant much of the game was played either on the power play or on a penalty kill. That seemed to hurt the Wild, who normally thrive on rotating all their players in and out of the game.
"We've got to take a few less penalties and be little more disciplined out there," said Mitchell. "Because when we're rolling four lines and everyone's into the hockey game, that's when we're a successful hockey team. Any time you're on a power play, you're on PK, guys sit at different times. ... There's times during the hockey game where you're sitting, you're getting cold. For us to be successful, I think we have to have all four lines going straight out of the blocks and that's something we'll try and do here next game."
Mitchell says Vancouver played the same style of game that has served the Wild well this year -- using a simple game plan that emphasizes puck control and a patient, stingy defense. That defensive style minimizes turnovers and scoring chances.
This game featured relatively few shots on goal: 18 for the Wild and only 13 for the Canucks. Wild left wing Marian Gaborik says it was hard to generate much momentum in a game where scoring chances were few.
"There wasn't a lot of shots from us and from them also. It was very tight. I think there were a few chances. But there wasn't much momentum there. I think we played hard but that little push was missing there a little bit," said Gaborik.
Dating back to their first round series against the Colorado Avalanche, the Wild have now lost three of their four home playoff games. Fan enthusiasm is not a problem. The game three crowd of more than 19,000 set another attendance record for a Minnesota hockey game.
Coach Jacques Lemaire wonders if his players might be pushing too hard in front of the home crowds, especially in the early going. Lemaire says in the regular season, the depth of the Wild typically paid dividends late in the game when Minnesota's skaters were a little fresher and faster than the opposition. He says that extra end of game energy was absent in game three.
"The guys were pumped up to start -- high tempo game and you lose your energy quick. We could have been faster in the third period. Usually we are," said Lemaire.
Lemaire found a bright spot in Minnesota's two power-play goals. He says goals have not been as scarce as they were in the first round against Colorado.
"We know that we can score, which is positive. The other series, at times there we were wondering if we would get a goal. But now we know it is possible to get some goals. So, we've got that aspect covered. Now we've got to play as good as we can defensively," Lemaire said.
The series resumes Friday night, with game four, in St. Paul. Game five will be Monday night in Vancouver.