To paraphrase Dennis Green, it was what we thought it would be. This game was every bit as close as we suspected it would be. Fittingly, it went to overtime. It also was the 8th time these teams have played each other this year where 3 goals was enough to win it. Luckily, the Avs were the one with the three, as they took game one from the Wild 3-2 in OT.
The Wild came out hard in front of 19,352 roaring fans at the Xcel Energy Center. The action was back and forth, but the stifling Wild defense didn't let anything get towards Niklas Backstrom. After a whistle about a minute in, the action didn't stop again until the 11:32 mark when Andrew Brunette was given a boarding penalty. With that and a Paul Stastny delay of game call about 4 minutes later, the Avs and Jose Theodore had to weather two Wild powerplays in the first period. Theodore was up to the task, making some huge saves to keep the Wild off the board. By the end of the first period, he had stopped 11 shots and the rest of the team owed him mad props for keeping the score 0-0.
The 2nd period has been our period this year, and last night was no exception. Brent Burns and Peter Forsberg were in the box for coincidental minors, giving the Avs a little more breathing room with some 4 on 4 hockey. Just 27 seconds into the penalty, Joe Sakic found Kurt Sauer streaking to the net and fed him a beauty of a pass that Sauer was able to expertly deflect above a shocked Backstrom. Sauer, a Minnesota native, looked like a natural goal-scorer on that one, not a guy with just 6 career tallies (including postseason). It was a shocking goal, and took a lot of wind out of the sails of the Xcel crowd.
Whatever wind was left completely vaporized at the 13:08 mark. With Pierre-Marc Bouchard in the box for a slash on Joe Sakic - the Avs lone powerplay of the night - Ryan Smyth deflected a Jeff Finger point shot past Backstrom to give the Avalanche a 2-0 lead. The home crowd seemed stunned; it was so quiet, it was if the Xcel Center had been picked up and dropped in Vancouver.
The Wild are an excellent team, though, and you knew this game was far from being over. They came out working in the 3rd and got a lucky break early on, when Mikko Koivu's centering pass to Brian Rolston instead found the skate of Jeff Finger and deflected right past Theodore. It was the good bounce the Wild needed to climb back into the game. And then Scott Hannan incredulously gave them another opportunity. At the 5:17 mark, Hannan made an absolutely boneheaded play when he elbowed James Sheppard along the sideboards. I have no idea what Hannan was thinking there, but it certainly wasn't a smart play. It gave the Wild a chance to tie the game and, of course, they did just that. Brian Rolston made a terrific leaping play to keep a clearing attempt into the zone, the Wild made some great passes, and Todd Fedoruk made some shifty moves in front of Theodore to find himself some empty net. Like that, the 2-0 lead was gone.
And, strangely enough, that was the point where the game turned in favor of the Avs.
The Xcel crowd predictably erupted after the Fedoruk goal. Earlier it had been a morgue, and now suddenly it was a nut house. Joel Quenneville wisely took the opportunity to use a timeout there, and it seemed to make all the difference in the world. He didn't have much to say to the team (at least that the camera caught), but appeared to just wanted to calm his team down and let some of the energy from the crowd dissipate.
For the rest of the period, it was almost all Colorado. The Avs did just about everything but score. Actually, they probably did score. In the final six minutes, the Avs had two goals waved off, two shots from Milan Hejduk that hit the posts, and an unsuccessful penalty shot by Ryan Smyth. Actually, you can rewind it back just a little bit farther. With a bit over 7 minutes left, Wojtek Wolski (who had a hell of a game) skated in on Backstrom and deked him to the ice. I was up on my feet celebrating that one, but it didn't find it's way in. With 5:48 left, I was still on my feet (trying to calm my nerves) when the Avalanche appeared to score, but the goal was waved off immediately by a referee with a clear view of the play. They reviewed the play, but it seemed pretty clear that David Jones swept the puck in with his skate. No goal. With 3:46 to go, Milan Hejduk found the post. With 2:27 to go, the most controversial play of the night happened. With the Smyth line on the ice, pressing hard, there was a mad pileup on top of a loose puck in the crease. The play was whistled down and the ref signaled for a penalty shot; Keith Carney had covered the puck with his hand in the crease. But as Smyth was lining up for his attempt, the replay on the TV was showing that Carney appeared to sweep his glove (and, by extension, the puck) INTO the net. Obviously, my screaming was heard all the way in Minnesota as the refs called off the Smyth attempt to review the play. Personally, I think the puck was in the net, but, unfortunately you couldn't see that clearly enough from the replay. Ultimately, the refs made the right call and said "no goal". Smyth still had a penalty shot attempt and he made a great move, but couldn't slide it under Backstrom. Smyth had a great game as it was, but a goal there would have gone a long way to erasing a disappointing season. It just wasn't meant to be. Hejduk hit the crossbar with just over a minute to play to put an end to the 3rd period vexation of the team.
During the intermission, McNab interviewed Kurt Sauer and asked if all the near-misses was frustrating to the team, or if the pressure they'd been getting on Backstrom was what they'd focus on. Sauer, in his ripped-from-Fargo accent, confirmed that it was the latter - they were feeling really good about all the chances they were getting. This may also be a good place to point out that Peter McNab was terrific in this game; I don't know that I've seen him any better. John Kelly, filling in for Mike Haynes, was also great. At one point, Kelly had the best description of a Tyler Arnason play I've ever heard when he uttered the phrase "Arnason dangles into the zone." Dangling is the perfect description of Arnason's play, and I wish I had come up with it first.
Back to the game. Overtime was every bit as exciting as the 3rd period had been. Both teams had chances and it looked like it was over when Brent Burns made an excellent toe drag on a 2 on 1 to give himself a clear shot on net. Theodore made a stellar save, though, keeping the Avalanche in it. And then Super Joe won it. Around the 11 minute mark, Wolski made a great individual effort skating in against 4 guys in red. He showed great patience, stopping towards the left faceoff circle and holding up to wait for help to arrive. Once he had company, he dished back to Ruslan Salei at the point. Salei fired it on net and the rebound went to the left of Backstrom...and right to the stick of Sakic. Sakic calmly backhanded the puck into the net to score his 8th playoff OT goal, two more than any other player to have played this great game.
I know this is already long-winded, but I'm just getting started. I figured it would be good to take a smug look at the 5 keys I mentioned the other day.
- Theodore: He was well above steady. When he stopped a Koivu deflection late in the first period, I knew I didn't have anything to worry about. No question, he gave his team a chance to win this one.
- Sakic: I think this gets a check mark too. He set up the first goal, drew the penalty that led to the second goal, and, of course, scored the game winner. How Doug Johnson could determine that Brian Rolston and Todd Fedoruk were two of the stars of the game but not Sakic is totally beyond me.
- Hitting: The Wild outhit the Avalanche 25-18 and seemed to have all the big, crowd-raising checks. Derek Boogaard and Fedoruk both played and played very well (Boogaard even took some shifts on the powerplay). Chris Simon did not play, but may make an appearance now (Mark Parrish suffered a head injury in the 2nd period). I don't know if the Avs were intimidated or not, but they need to keep better pace with the Wild in this department. Bonus kudos to the Wild, who managed to be the most physical AND most disciplined team, as the Avs had just one PP to the Wild's five. You can't see it, but I'm shaking my fist at Scott Hannan right now.
- Special Teams: The Avalanche converted their only PP opportunity, while killing 4 of the 5 Wild power plays. A large portion of the credit goes to Theodore here, as he stopped 12 of the 13 shots the Wild had on the power play. Most of his best saves were against the PP.
- Keep the Lead: The Avs don't get a check here, but they didn't play terribly with a 2-0 lead. The Koivu goal was a tough break, and the Fedoruk powerplay was well-executed. Still, if I see Peter Forsberg make another drop pass into the slot with a 2 goal lead, I'm going to come out there and kick him in the ankle groin myself.
- The Wild are now 1-4 alltime in game 1s.
- Kurt Sauer has 2 postseason goals in just 34 games, compared to 4 regular season goals in 288 games.
- Brent Burns and Kim Johnsson both had more than 30 minutes of ice time in the game.
Game 2, Friday in Minnesota, 9 pm eastern. The game is on Vs and will be joined in progress after the completion of the Washington - Philadalphia game. I hate the NHL.
Here's what other writers of both the Avs and Wild are saying about the game:
We can talk all we want about Chris "Clutch" Drury but let's never forget what Joe Sakic has done for this team when it matters most. - Shane Giroux, Avs Talk
When you're on a list ahead of guys like Maurice Richard and Glenn Anderson, you know you're the clutchest mofo on the planet. Chris who? - Joe, Mile High Hockey
Great goal by Sakic to win it, but I still don't like him. All time leading playoff overtime goal scorer notches another one. - Thomas, Riding the Avalanche
How is it that Joe Sakic has made it through a career as one of the best players in the history of the game, yet he always seems to play in the shadow of newer, flashier players? - Aaron D'Albey, The Dog and Pony Show
The puck was on his stick, with a game hanging on what Joe Sakic would do with it. Like he has done so many times for the Avalanche, Sakic put the puck into the net and the Avs danced off the ice to another playoff victory. - Adrian Dater, Denver Post
After Fedoruk scored at 6:13, Foote slammed his stick against the boards in the corner and was still mad about it after the game, despite Joe Sakic's overtime game-winner in a 3-2 win. - Denver Post
Smyth's signs of life were particularly encouraging, even if Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom stoned him on a third-period penalty shot. If you've kept track of the Avs' shootout selections, you know this is not the power forward's forte. But Smyth played with the sort of desperate energy the Avs had hoped to see more of during a regular season marred by a pair of debilitating injuries and a general malaise that followed them. - Dave Kreiger, Rocky Mountain News
The Avalanche might have been done in if not for goalie Jose Theodore, who continued what has been a remarkable comeback season. - Rick Sadowski, Rocky Mountain News
It's hard to argue Fedoruk and Rolston didn't have good games (they did) but isn't there some unwritten rule that the winning team should at least get 2/3 stars? - Jibblescribbits, Jibblescribbits
The Smyth penalty shot was the first ever against the Wild in postseason play. As I think you know, Nik Backstrom wasn’t good in shootouts, but he stoned him to help the game get to OT. - Michael Russo, Russo's Rants
As a fan, you can't really fault just one person for playing poor- on the whole I thought the Wild were really good, if not dominating at times, and that its just a lucky bounce that went Colorado's way. - Dan, Deuce by Definition
Both Brent Burns and Kim Johnsson played over 30 minutes each tonight -- each of them played more than Keith Carney and Sean Hill combined. That cannot be allowed to continue. In order for the Wild to be successful, we need three sets of 'D', old or otherwise. - Wild Road Tripper, Hitting the Post
I liked the resiliency of both teams tonite. The Wild for tying it in the 3rd, and the Avs for coming out strong after that tying goal. They carried the momentum for most of the way after that, and unfortunately the Wild could not counter. J., Wild View from Section 216
The crowd was really into it at the beginning and at the end. When it was 2-0? Could have heard a pin drop. - David Kinsbury, Hockey in Minnesota