The Minnesota Wild started the third period of last night’s Game One matchup with the Colorado Avalanche on one of the biggest highs of the season.
After its playoff hopes appeared to be hanging in the balance with a key matchup coming against the Phoenix Coyotes, the leadership group of captains Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter and goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov met and decided enough was enough. The Wild would go 6-1-1 in the next eight games, locking up the top wild card spot in the Western Conference while shutting down some of the top players and teams in the league. Even with much improved depth and a more experienced squad, Minnesota entered last night as the underdog. That was before the Wild rattled off four goals on 2013-14 Vezina contender Semyon Varlamov in just two periods.
Then came “the turnover”. With a little less than 13 minutes to go in the game, defenseman Marco Scandella chipped the puck out of the corner to third line center Kyle Brodziak. Brodziak, who scored Minnesota’s fourth and final goal of the game, made a perfect pass to Avs forward Ryan O’Reilly (it was originally intended for Matt Cooke), who sent a backhander in on net where Jamie McGinn deposited the puck to make it 4-3. It was all Colorado from there.
For the rest of the game, Minnesota seemed to play scared. The second line seemed to get a lot of chances, but Jason Pominville would shoot wide, hit a post or Mikael Granlund would second guess himself. Sure, the Wild led in shots on goal. Yes, they dominated the faceoff circle. But Colorado made life physically difficult and began to press their advantage with increasing urgency as the atmosphere of the Pepsi Center reached Rocky Mountain High levels. The pop tab blew when Paul Stastny scored the game equalizer with 13.4 seconds left in the game after rookie head coach Patrick Roy made a gutsy decision to pull Varlamov with three minutes left in the game. Wild rookie Erik Haula nearly made him pay for it, as a hustling Erik Johnson was all that stood between the Finn and his second goal of the game.
Finally, in overtime, Stastny struck the death blow off a Nathan MacKinnon pass from behind the net. It was over–Minnesota had gift-wrapped a come from behind 5-4 Game One victory for Roy and the once again mighty Colorado Avalanche. It was one of the most difficult, mind-blowing games I have ever witnessed. Some might say it was a very Minnesota Wild way to lose.
While the Wild left the ice with a lot of unanswered questions, there was one they knew the answer to–the Avalanche are a very beatable team. Minnesota can score on Varlamov. The Wild has shown it can play at a very high level when it executes a perfect fore check. And Minnesota certainly has the ability to contain Colorado’s high octane forwards.
A certain adjustment the Wild absolutely needs to make is to take the Avs’ physical game and throw it right back in their faces. Play hard. Hammer them. Wear down their forwards, make their young, battered, bruised and inexperienced defense jittery and cautious and keep Varlamov the busiest man on the ice. It’s the surest way to beating this squad.
This is a very winnable series, if Minnesota can keep a straight head on. Last night was just Game One. There are six more to go. A win tomorrow night at the “Can” will go a long way for a team that will play the following two games on home ice. It’s time to act. Colorado’s motto this year is “Why Not Us?”. Well, why not Minnesota? Tomorrow is a new day–why not us?