With surprise scratches and old friends coming back to the Xcel Energy Center, the story of the night was Matt Cullen's 1000th NHL game as the Wild hosted the San Jose Sharks for the first time this season, and it would be the Minnesota native's shootout winner that sent the Wild home with a win.
Though the San Jose Sharks and Minnesota Wild have been bound together by the wholesale exchange of rosters this offseason, tonight's matchup was even more memorable than usual for Matt Cullen. The Minnesota native skated onto the ice for game No. 1,000 of his NHL career, 15 years after being being called up by the Anaheim Ducks, who originally drafted him as the 35th overall pick in 1996.
The third meeting between the teams this season, it was also the first in Minnesota, giving the Xcel Energy Center crowd a chance to offer former Wild defender Brent Burns a warm welcome, but the applause quickly settled into catcalls after the initial rush of goodwill faded.
Another unusual story came into play after the warmup skate, when the Wild announced that former Shark Devin Setoguchi was scratched for "disciplinary reasons", which Star Tribune reporter Mike Russo later clarified as a punishment for missing a team meeting Tuesday morning.
The game started well for the home crowd despite the loss of Setoguchi and top six forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard, as the Minnesota offense tested Antti Niemi early before Cal Clutterbuck opened the scoring on a perfect backhand shelf move.
Dan Boyle responded with just his third goal of the year late in the first period, but the Wild took a 2-1 lead in the second period thanks to Jason Peters, and then extended it to 3-1 and 4-2 advantages thanks to Nick Johnson and Cullen through the third period. The Cullen goal, though crowd pleasing, came with a fair amount of controversy: San Jose coach Todd McClelland felt that Niemi had covered the puck, but the lack of a whistle meant that the Wild continued to battle in the crease.
Even as fans in the Xcel Center cheered for the hometown hero, the Sharks renewed their efforts, showing why they have been so consistently dangerous in the Western Conference over the past few seasons. Fittingly, Brent Burns set up Logan Couture with a long shot from the point with just over three minutes to go that the sophomore poked past a sprawling Josh Harding. Thirty seconds later, the stunned crowd saw Patrick Marleau redirect a Joe Thornton shot, and a storybook ending seemed in jeopardy as time ran with the game tied at 4-4.
Patrick Marleau nearly capped the Sharks' comeback less than thirty seconds into OT on a shot that slid through the crease, but Harding was able to poke it away with his outstretched glove just in time. The Sharks continued to pressure the Minnesota defense, leading the shots 5-2 in OT, but were forced to accept a shootout when neither side could capitalize during the extra time.
Wild head coach Mike Yeo made the decision to lead his shooters with Cullen, who came into the game with a 4-for-8 record in shootouts this season, and the veteran scored with a slow rolling shot that ran up the side of Niemi's leg pads and into the net.
Clowe attempted to move in and try for a close-range stuff attempt, similar to the goal that Logan Couture sparked the San Jose rally with, but Harding was prepared on the attempt and sealed his legs to the ice, trapping the puck and kicking it out of danger to complete the win.