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The Stanley Cup playoffs may be nearly three months away, but the Minnesota Wild and Vancouver Canucks know that every game within the tightly-packed Northwest Division is critical.
The teams haven't had any trouble finding extra motivation when they've met one another this season.
Vancouver looks to end a three-game slide when it hosts Minnesota on Monday in a divisional rivalry that has turned ugly when the teams have met this season.
The bad blood started when the teams began their season series in Vancouver on Nov. 16. With his team up 5-2 late in the third period, Canucks defenseman Mattias Ohlund responded to a high hit from Minnesota's Mikko Koivu by slashing him across the leg, breaking Koivu's leg and earning Ohlund a four-game suspension.
In addition, Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard and Vancouver's Willie Mitchell got into a fight, prompting Boogaard to take some verbal jabs at the Canucks' leading scorers, Markus Naslund and Swedish twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
"Maybe I can go after, or check Naslund and those Pinky and the Brain twins," Boogaard said, referring to a cartoon featuring genetically enhanced lab mice.
When the teams met in Minnesota five days later, no Wild player was able to contain Naslund, who notched his 11th career hat trick and first in nearly four years.
Only one fight broke out in that game, but when the teams played again in St. Paul on Dec. 2, Minnesota's Aaron Voros and Vancouver's Jeff Cowan dropped their gloves three seconds in, setting the stage for a physical contest that saw Cowan get in another fight and the Canucks' Alex Burrows sent off for a 10-minute game misconduct penalty.
Amidst all the fighting, the Canucks have won two of their three meetings with Minnesota (26-18-3).
However, the Canucks (25-18-5) are currently in the midst of their worst stretch since losing six of eight in the first month of the season. Vancouver is 1-4-1 in its past six games, and has lost consecutive games at home for the first time since Oct. 28-Nov. 1.
They fell 4-3 to Los Angeles at GM Place on Saturday, their third loss in as many tries this season to the league-worst Kings.
"We were sloppy at times in our end, giving up plays that we don't usually give up," Ohlund said. "We scored three goals that should have been enough to win the game but we gave up some goals that we shouldn't have and usually don't."
Goaltender Roberto Luongo, a finalist for the Vezina and Hart trophies last season, has struggled of late. He's 1-3-1 with a 2.93 goals-against average in his last five starts.
He hasn't had much success against Minnesota in his career, either, going 5-8-2 with one tie and a 2.85 GAA.
The Wild have lost two straight games on the heels of a three-game winning streak, and now hit the road for three games before the All-Star break.
They trailed 3-0 early in the second period of their latest defeat, 4-2 to Anaheim on Friday.
"We just came out flat," the Wild's Mark Parrish said. "I don't know whether it's nerves, or we're too loose, or what it is."
Although Minnesota is in the lower half of the league in goals scored, it hasn't had problems lately. The Wild have scored 19 in their last five games, during which leading scorer Marian Gaborik has four goals and six assists.
Gaborik also has six goals in his last seven games against the Canucks.