Minnesota Wild\'s Mikko Koivu, of Finland, celebrates his short-handed goal against the New Jersey Devils during the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Jan. 2, 2010, in St. Paul, Minn. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Tom Olmscheid)
ST. PAUL, Minn. - Always the discipline-demanding coach, Jacques Lemaire didn't enjoy an uncharacteristically sloppy victory by the New Jersey Devils.
In Lemaire's first appearance in Minnesota since leaving the Wild last spring, Minnesota native Jamie Langenbrunner handled the fun himself. The captain's first career hat trick made Lemaire's return a successful trip, and the Devils beat the Wild 5-3 on Saturday night.
"It's definitely been a good start to 2010 for me," Langenbrunner said.
The day after he was selected for the U.S. Olympic team, Langenbrunner got three goals for the first time in 924 NHL games. The Devils didn't play here last season, so these games in the city where he once played in Minnesota's famed state high school tournament are rare for Langenbrunner. The best part? Two busloads of friends and family members from his hometown of Cloquet travelled 2 1/2 hours to the Twin Cities to watch.
"I heard 'em a few times," he said.
The streaky Langenbrunner, who had a career-high 29 goals last season, has five of his 13 goals this season in the last four games. Teammate Brian Rolston, who rarely sees a shot he doesn't like, encouraged him to start being more aggressive.
"I think I got away from shooting it a little bit," Langenbrunner said. "When the confidence is down, you start looking to pass and not shooting."
When the night began, it was all about Lemaire, the only coach the Wild ever had until he quit after last season. He was honoured with a brief video tribute before the game, looking up for a few seconds and waving to the crowd, which was announced at 19,155 - an overflow sellout and the largest this season.
"It was nice," he said. "That I enjoyed."
Despite the win by his Eastern Conference-leading Devils, Lemaire was displeased with the performance and upset they didn't put the Wild away after taking a 2-0 lead in the heart of the second period.
"Just a bad game. No puck control," Lemaire said, praising Martin Brodeur for his steady goaltending. "We complicated the game a little too much."
After Mikko Koivu tied it 2-2 in the final minute of the second period with a short-handed rebound shot of his own miss, Langenbrunner took advantage of some sloppy Wild defence in front of the crease and punched in a loose puck for the lead.
"The building was rolling and to give up that goal ... was pretty deflating," coach Todd Richards said.
Jay Pandolfo's goal with 8:25 left in the game gave New Jersey a bigger edge. With heavy traffic in front of the net Andrew Brunette was credited with his 13th goal of the season with 3:51 remaining when the puck appeared to ricochet off his head and into the net on top of his Brodeur's leg.
But an empty-net turnover led to Langenbrunner's third score, in the closing seconds. Brodeur finished with 29 saves for the Eastern Conference leaders, who have lost to the Wild only once in 10 meetings.
"It's a good team. We knew that," Koivu said. "But I think we played a good game as well. It shows we can play any team in this league if we're just on top of our game."
The Wild have lost three in a row for the first time since dropping five straight in mid-October. They've given up four goals in each of the three losses.
After a Hall of Fame career in Montreal and more championships than a man could keep track of, Lemaire coached New Jersey to a Stanley Cup in 1995 and eventually was hired to mould Minnesota's expansion team in 2000.
Minnesota fans grew a little tired of the trapping, conservative style, and he had a harder time reaching some of the young players toward the end of his tenure. Last spring, when Lemaire resigned, both sides sounded ready for a change.
He led the Wild to three playoff appearances in those eight seasons, however, including a run to the Western Conference finals in 2003. After landing back on the East Coast where the travel is light and his roster is loaded, deeper and more potent than any of his teams in Minnesota, the 64-year-old Lemaire is enjoying another successful season.
"They come to play every night. They work hard, and they're very easy to coach," Lemaire said.
NOTES: Wild owner Craig Leipold is lobbying the NHL to host a future Winter Classic, held this year at Boston's Fenway Park. An outdoor game in Minnesota could be played at TCF Bank Stadium, home of University of Minnesota football, or Target Field, where the Twins will play ball beginning this spring. ... Koivu broke a seven-game goal-less streak. He has 11 this season to go with 30 assists, with a career-long six-game streak current in that category. ... The Devils are the only team the Wild haven't beaten more than once in their history.