There is some history there and the two teams have been fighting in the same neighbourhood for over a decade but, the last four seasons, the Minnesota Wild have been rivals to the Vancouver Canucks the way a nail is rival to a hammer.
In each of those four seasons, the Canucks won four Northwest Division titles and the Wild failed to make the playoffs. On average, the Minnesotans finished 24 points behind the Canucks over that span.
You have to go back to the height of the Jacques Lemaire era, in fact, to find a time when games between these two teams meant something. This has been the Canucks’ show and the Northwest has been the Canucks’ division.
Until this season, at least.
“I don’t know, has it changed?” Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa asked before Monday night’s game. “It seems we’ve always had some big games with these guys. But they’re challenging for top spot now and that adds something to it.”
Actually, it adds a lot.
On the most basic level, Monday night’s matchup between the Canucks and the Wild was a first-place showdown in the Northwest, and that alone tells you things have changed for both teams within their division.
This season, the Canucks blazed off to an 8-2-2 start before they started to go sideways. The Wild, for their part, started slowly, then hit the accelerator, going 11-5-1 in the last 16.
Add it up and the two teams went into Monday night tied with 32 points atop the Northwest. But there’s a much larger story developing here. The Wild are not only trending in the right direction this season, they’re younger, deeper and better positioned for the future than the Canucks.
The two teams might be close this season. But, a couple more years down the road, you wonder if that will still be the case. True, they’re both moving into new divisions next season, so maybe the rivalry will lose a bit of its heat.
And maybe that’s a good thing for the Canucks.
“It never stays the same,” said the Canucks’ Chris Higgins. “There’s going to be turnover. You might stay on top for a couple of years before the other teams start figuring it out.
“But we still feel we have a team that’s capable of winning this division and these guys are going to be fighting with us right down to the end.”
That much is apparent. The subject of the Canucks’ slide over the last month has been well-chronicled in this market and needs no further illumination here. But while they’ve struggled, the Wild have found some traction with a team that turned over almost half its roster from last season.
The big pieces, of course, were Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, and you can trace the Wild’s rise from the point the $98-million men started to feel comfortable in their new surroundings.
But it’s the smaller, less-heralded pieces that make a more compelling story. The Wild have dressed seven rookies this season and two of them — defencemen Jonas Brodin and winger Charlie Coyle — are playing feature roles.
Brodin, a 19-year-old, is playing on the top blueline pair with Suter, while the 21-year-old Coyle plays on the top line with Parise and Mikko Koivu. They’re also part of a group of prospects that has consistently placed the Wild among the top three teams in the various future watches around the league.