Well, that was different.
After three overtime nail-biters, game four in Denver last night was anything but. After watching a tired Avalanche team struggle through overtime less than 24 hours before, I was worried that Colorado was in real danger of going down 3-1 in the series. Instead, it was the Wild that came out flat, and the Avs were there to capitalize. The Avs took a commanding lead early and then just had to hold on while the Wild lost their composure. The final score was 5-1 Colorado and the series now heads back to Minnesota knotted up at 2.
As has been the case in every game of the series, the Avalanche were the first to get on the board. Just 4:01 into the first, Ruslan Salei skated into the zone and then Wolskid around until help arrived. When reinforcements made it to the scene, Salei fired it on net and Andrew Brunette deflected it past Nicklas Backstrom. Just 1:36 later, Ian Laperriere pressured Keith Carney in the corner after an offensive zone faceoff. Carney responded by making the always brilliant play of throwing the puck in front of his own net. The ill-advised pass went right to the stick of Wojtek Wolski who fired a quick shot that just beat Backstrom's stick side. Although Wolski has been demoted twice already in the series (from the 2nd to 3rd line in game 3 and then to the 4th line last night), he's been effective and his 4 points is 2nd to Joe Sakic's 5.
The Wild must have been in a state of shock after falling down 2 goals for just the 2nd time in the series. If they were, they did a lousy job pulling themselves together. At the 11:08 mark, Martin Skoula - a guy who's been very good in the series - folded under pressure by Peter Forsberg at the Minnesota blueline and coughed up the puck to Tyler Arnason. Arnason took a couple of strides and then ripped what has to be the hardest shot I've seen him take. This thing was a missle, and beat a stunned Backstrom to give the Avalanche a commanding 3-0 lead. This was the 12th time these clubs had squared off this year, and in every single game the first team to 3 goals has been the winner. Tonight would be no exception, although at this point in the game I was still concerned that the Wild would come back much like the Calgary Flames did recently against San Jose.
As it turns out, my fears were unfounded. With Todd Fedoruk in the box for a trip on Peter Forsberg, Ruslan Salei smoked a point shot past Backstrom for a commanding 4-0 lead. And then the Wild imploded. On the following shift, Joel Quenneville put out a line that had been working well all night - Tyler Arnason, Cody McLeod and David Jones. They were the proverbial dagger to the heart, as they spent the shift putting hits and offensive pressure on the Wild and ultimately forcing Stephane Veilleux to take a hooking penalty while trying to stop Arnason. Once the play was whistled down, Derek Boogaard showed his frustration by firing the puck down the ice (earning the goof a 10 minute misconduct penalty) and then punching David Jones (earning him a roughing minor). From there on, the Wild - you know, the team that complained about Laperriere's "fight" with Marion Gaborik and for Cody McLeod's "lack of respect" - played like a bunch of spoiled schoolgirls who've had their cell phones taken away.
To be clear, I don't have any problem with physical play. Everyone watching had to know the Wild would be frustrated with their inability to play competent hockey in the game and would be looking to vent some of those frustrations. But, there's venting frustrations and then there's acting like a bunch of cowardly losers and a couple of the Wild players resorted to the latter. Not long after the Boogaard / Veilleux 5 on 3 ended, Cody McLeod again pushed the Wild's buttons with a solid (and clean) check of Eric Belanger into the Minnesota bench. Veilleux immediately came over and gave McLeod a cross check. I can live with that response. What I can't fathom is the thought process that justifies both Veilleux and Belanger ganging up on a defenseless McLeod (he was down on his knees after the Veilleux hit). Really, guys? That's just cowardly. Also cowardly: the disgusting play by Veilleux when he slammed Paul Stastny into the boards from behind. There's no excuse for that type of horrendous play no matter how stupid Veilleux may be. Stastny, thankfully, wasn't hurt on the play, but I hope that doesn't stop the league from suspending the gutless Veilleux.
My favorite "what the..." moment of the night came not long after Veilleux came out of the box following his boarding minor. Lappy challenged him off the draw, and the two dropped their gloves. With the two circling each other on the ice, Aaron Voros came charging in to challenge Lappy. Um, Aaron, he's a little busy at the moment...can you come back later?
In all, the Wild took 25 penalties, including 6 misconducts. "I couldn't wait until that game gets over," Wild coach Jacques Lemaire said. "I knew there was nothing to do. It was getting ugly, the guys were frustrated. The more they got frustrated, the more we got penalties. Guys were talking on the bench, we got bench penalties, it never stopped." It never stopped, partly because Lemaire kept throwing those morons out there. Case in point: Veilleux and Voros were both out there taking cheap shots at Avalanche players right up until the closing horn. But don't blame Lemaire. It's not like he puts these guys on the ice...
As for the Avs, it's tough to really evaluate after a game like this. That McLeod line was something else, though, and, honestly, I'd rather see Wolski with the 4th line if he's not able to play on the top 2. Ryan Smyth was very effective on the first line, and Paul Stastny seems ohsoclose to breaking out of his slump. The Avs powerplay is still plagued by overpassing (and, in Forsberg's case last night, sloppy passing) but it's tough to really take a hard look since most of the PPs happened when the game was well in hand. The Wild did score another shorthanded goal, but, again, the game was well over at that point. Plus, the play was offsides to begin with and should have been whistled dead. Peter Forsberg wasn't much of a factor, but he didn't play much either - he sat out the 3rd period, but was on the bench (meaning, it was probably for rest not because of an injury). With the period of combined with all the penalties, he only had 4:21 of even strength ice time.
Jordan Leopold played in place of Jeff Finger. Leopold botched two clearing attempts on his first shift, but then settled down nicely. He had two assists in the game, but also had 4 hits. All the hits from him were solid, and it wasn't an accident - I watched him skillfully time it so that he arrived just after the puck found the Wild player on several occasions. He absolutely brought his playoff game, and I'd be comfortable seeing him on the ice again.
Another defenseman who had an interesting game was John-Michael Liles. Liles was reminsent of a different #4 last night - he brought Rob Blake's +3 Howitzer of Near Misses to the rink with him. Liles was taking blistering shots from all over the place last night. Unfortunately, half of them missed the net. I'll take those misses, though. If Salei and Liles are going to continue to take point shots like they did last night, good things are bound to happen.
I've mentioned a few times that I've been extremely impressed with the way the Avs have maintained their composure in the series. They kept it together last night against the asinine play from guys like Veilleux and Voros, but the real test is going to come Thursday. The Wild will no doubt be fired up for that one. They still do not have a goal in the first or second period, so I'm guessing they will come out hard on Thursday. The Avs will need to be ready to weather a big storm. It wouldn't shock me at all to see the Wild jump to an early lead in that game.
Last night's game was the 2nd game I've watched on Vs. While I still am very angry with the NHL and Vs for the contempt they showed to hockey fans by allowing the late games to be joined in progress, there is one part of the broadcast I really enjoyed: Billy Jaffe. I have to say, I absolutely hated Jaffe as a color guy when we played the Islanders earlier this year. But as an on-ice reporter, he's been terrific. I generally don't have much use for these reporters during the game (oh goody, we get to hear another player rattle off the same teamspeak lingo while trying to catch his breath. yay), but Jaffe actually paid close attention to the action on the ice and noticed far more stuff than the guys in the booth did. He's the one who pointed out the short shifts by the Wild in the 3rd period on Monday, leading to them having more legs in overtime. He also was the first to see that the Wild were offsides on their goal last night. His insights were generally spot on in both games - a stark contrast to the blathering self-serving commentary we have to endure from other *ahem* reporters.
Theodore: Jose had a relatively quiet game and turned aside 24 of 25 shots. Thanks to some sloppy special teams play, he did have to face 6 shorthanded shots, which is about 6 too many. He gets an easy check mark for his solid play. And, of course, he's still perfect in the first 40 minutes.
Sakic: Sakic had a relatively quiet game with just 1 assist, but leads the team in scoring and is having a solid series offensively. Long time readers will know I've never been a big fan of Sakic at the point. Neil Smith complained that Sakic was struggling to keep the puck in at the point because he's a forward, but that's not my issue. My problem stems from the fact that if the puck gets past Sakic at the blueline, he can't get back fast enough on the play. It happened Monday night (when the Wild scored) and last night (no goal on this one, thanks to Theodore). Pucks getting past the point guy will happen whether the player is a forward or defenseman. But if that point guy can't get back to clean up his mess, there's going to be trouble.
Physicality: The Avalanche did a great job matching the Wild's physical play without lowering themselves to Veilleux's level.
Special Teams: The Avs were a disappointing 2 for 13 on the powerplay and failed to score in 3:10 of 5 on 3 time. As I said above, it's tough to critique the team here since so much of this took place in garbage time...but it's still worrisome.
Holding the lead: Gosh golly, the Avs CAN keep a lead in the postseason. Miracles do come true, Tommy.
- The Avs won 60% of the faceoffs tonight. Tyler Arnason, who's turnaround in the circle I chronicled on Saturday, won 63% of the draws he took.
- With all the PP time, guys like Kurt Sauer (16:25) and Adam Foote (14:26) played much less than normal, which should help on Thursday
- With all the Wild's ridiculousness, the one guy who was strangely quiet was Chris Simon. He's been completely invisible in both games he's played in.
- Cody McLeod continues to spend considerable time killing penalties, something he began to do only very late in the regular season. Honestly, he seems just a shade too aggressive out there, and I wonder if that will end up costing us at some point.
Game 5 is Thursday in Minnesota.
How a team wins can say a lot about them. How a team loses can say even more. If that's true, then the resounding message from the Minnesota Wild's 5-1 loss to the Avalanche last night was "We're pathetic." - Joe, Mile High Hockey
Supposedly, the older Avalanche squad was the one that was supposed to feel the effects of three consecutive overtime games going in its Game 4 showdown against the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday.Instead, it was the Avalanche that proved spry early, turning victorious board battles by Ian Laperriere and Peter Forsberg into own-zone turnovers by Minnesota. - Pat Rooney, Rocky Mountain News
The differences in leadership between the Wild and Avalanche was very evident last night. When the Wild started losing it, the Avalanche kept their cool, rarely retaliated and made the Wild look a bit ridiculous.
The Wild, on the other hand, took every opportunity to start scrums after the whistles, hack at anything that moved and generally look like a group of babies. - Shane Giroux, Colorado Avalanche Talk
The Wild’s overworked defensemen lost this game. Turnovers galore in the first period, and all six defensemen played big roles in the disaster as I documented in my rewritten gamer for the web site. - Mike Russo, Russo's Rants
As a couple of the Minnesota writers have already noted tonight, Mark Kiszla’s "Ugly Betty" column wasn’t so off the mark, was it? What kind of hockey do you call that tonight, Wild fans? Are you denying your team gooned it up tonight, and only cost themselves even more doing that? - Adrian Dater, All Things Avs
The Wild seemed to forget about the fact that there was a hockey game going on and just wanted to hit people. Almost like they wanted to validate Mark Kiszla's story. Very disheartening. - J., Wild Section from Section 216.
Congratulations to Colorado on a well-played game. Minnesota's chippy third period play was embarrassing at best and has no place in the series. Just take your lumps and go on is what they should have done. - Roy, Wild Puck Banter
One player who did not get involved physically was Chris Simon, which begs the question of why he was in the lineup if he wasn’t going to get involved physically. - Derek Felska, The State of Hockey News
For the first time since the Western Conference quarterfinal series started, the Avalanche and Minnesota Wild managed to finish a game in regulation. Good thing, too, because the teams might have played long into this morning with constant stoppages for penalties, scrums and even one semi-fight that turned Tuesday night's contest into one long marathon. - Rick Sadowski, Rocky Mountain News
No bounces in off their skates this time. No funny hops behind the net. No more blown leads and no more overtime. - Adrian Dater, Denver Post
And, for once, Jose Theodore, who had been overworked and underappreciated in this series, didn't have to stand on his head. He could have sat on his rear. The Wild was rather meek in the opening period. - Woody Paige, Denver Post
Minnesota committed seven defensive-end turnovers Tuesday — in the first period. After Colorado went ahead 3-0, Rolston said, the Wild was officially out of its game plan. The teams combined for too many penalties for the official scorekeepers to track at press time. At last count, Minnesota was whistled for 26 penalties. - Mike Chambers, Denver Post
Still, Colorado's concerns about its suspect special teams continued. The Avs went just 2-for-13 on the power play, failed to score on two 5-on-3 advantages totaling 3:10 and surrendered a short-handed goal to Mikko Koivu, his fourth goal of the series. - The Associated Press
It wasn't a pretty game to watch from a Minnesota standpoint penalties non withstanding; defensive zone turnovers (which led to a couple goals), heavy legs, very little chemistry and flow, and just an overall lack of crispness. When you come out as poorly as we did tonight, its easy for a team like Colorado (or any team really) to jump up to an early lead and continue to extend it. I do want to give Colorado credit, because they capitalized on an out of sync and frustrated team. - Dan, Deuce by Definition
So I am turning the game off and going to bed. And it's not because I'm a fair weather fan, but because I hate watching my team suck, and it makes me depressed knowing that we should be playing so much better than we are. - Elise, 18,568 Reasons Why