The Avalanche edged past the Minnesota Wild 2-1 in Denver last night to close out the series in 6 games. It was the 5th 1-goal game of the series, with the Avs - a .500 team in 1-goal games during the year - winning 3 of them.
The Avalanche and Wild both won at least 80% of the time during the regular season when scoring first - they were 2 of the 3 best teams in that area. For the Wild, it was feast or famine all year: when scoring first they were 36-4-5, but when their opponent got on the board first, they were a lowly 8-24-5 - 26th in the league. In the end, the Avalanche scored first in every single game of the series and that was just too much for the Wild to overcome. Theirs is a team built to sit on leads, not to come from behind. By the way, the team with the best overall record when scoring first is our potential second round opponent - Detroit.
For a change, Andrew Brunette was not the guy leading off the scoring (he had the first goal in the previous 3 games). Tonight, it was Ben Guite on a shorthanded breakaway goal at the 8:02 mark of the third. The Wild's tentative looking powerplay turned the puck over to Joe Sakic at the blueline and Sakic easily fed Guite to break him alone on Nicklas Backstrom. It was the only powerplay the Wild would see on the night - the Avalanche took just that one penalty in the game.
The Wild tied it just 36 seconds into the second period when the Wild's Aaron Voros converted on an odd man rush. Marion Gaborik assisted on the play - his first and only point in the series. I know that Gaborik is getting a lot of heat in Minnesota for his play, but let's give credit where credit is due. Adam Foote completely shut Gaborik down. The superstar forward just had no room to work for most of the series. Every single time he had the puck, Foote was steering him towards the boards. That was a textbook example of a defenseman shutting down a star player in the postseason; that's why we gave up a first round pick at the deadline, and Foote did not disappoint. In fact, I think it can be argued that Foote has exceeded the expectations of many of us with his stellar play.
The Avs went ahead 2-1 on a goal by Ryan Smyth. Smyth had a tremendous series, even if he just had 3 points to score for it. His gritty play in front of the net was exactly what we paid beacoup bucks for last summer. His regular season may have been a disappointment, but he's been a warrior in the postseason. And, once again, the Arnason line pitched in for a big play at a key moment in the game, as he and David Jones worked the reverse cycle to get the puck back to a wide open Ryan Smyth.
And why was Smyth open? His side of the net had been vacated by Eric Reitz, a defenseman playing in just his 8th NHL contest. In a play reminiscent of old friend Karlis Skrastins, Reitz left his post to join Martin Skoula in pressuring Jones with the puck. When Jones calmly dumped the puck in front of the net to Smyth, Reitz was nowhere to be found and Smyth scored easily. Reitz would have just two more shifts in the game, putting even more pressure on a very tired defensive squad. I felt Jacques Lemaire made some very questionable personnel decisions in the series. I know that Sean Hill and Petteri Nummelin both struggled in the series, but I have a feeling either one of them would have been in better position on that play.
With a thin defense, Brent Burns, Kim Johnsson and Martin Skoula all played monster minutes in the series, and it showed. Johnsson made some bad decisions all game long, and as the series wore on Burns' all out assault on Peter Forsberg tapered off considerably. Forsberg had several good chances in this game and hit the post twice in the 3rd period. Had Ken Schultz been available for the whole series (he played last night and played well all things considered), perhaps things would have been different. But, he wasn't, and I think Lemaire overworking of his "big three" ended up costing his team.
Jose Theodore again put in a solid game. He didn't have to steal the game like he did in game 5 - the Wild had 35 shots, but many of them were perimeter shots. But he did keep the Wild from coming back, stopping the final 23 shots he faced and did have to make some big saves in the 2nd period. For the series, Theodore posted a .940 save percentage and significantly outplayed his counterpart Backstrom.
One of the keys to me all series long has been the composure of the team. I keep thinking back to game one when the Wild celebrated their two goals like they'd just won the Stanley Cup. Both celebrations eclipsed the Avalanche celebration of Sakic's winner in that game by a wide margin. All series long, the Avs had a calm, workmanlike demeanor to their game, never getting too high or too low. For the most part, they played solid, disciplined hockey even when Stephane Veilleux was doing his Chris Simon impression in game 4. You combine that veteran play with superb goaltending, solid defense and balanced scoring (11 of 19 skaters had a goal in the series, and 16 of 19 had at least a point) and I think we've got a team here that can put a serious run together.
Theodore: Another terrific game for Theodore. Check.
Sakic: Sakic may have played his best game of the series. He assisted on the Guite goal and played terrific defensive hockey all night long. His defensive zone faceoff win late in the game was huge. Sakic led the Avs in scoring in the first round. Another check.
Physical play: This was the least physical game of the series. The Wild, saddled with fatigue and pressing to tie the game, seemed to abandon hitting completely. The Avs, led by the tenacious Ruslan Salei, had the upper hand in this department almost by default.
Special Teams: The Avalanche were 0-3 on the powerplay, but did score that one shorthanded goal. A half check for the Avs:
Holding the lead: After Smyth's goal in the 2nd, the Avalanche had 27:40 worth of storm to weather. They played generally terrific defense (with some lapses again in the 2nd) and gave the Wild few chances while maintaining some solid forechecking pressure the other way. In fact, the Avs managed to out-shoot the Wild in the 3rd 11-9. A big check here.
- Other than that penalty-riddled game 4, the Avalanche took just 3 3rd period penalties in the series.
- For the series, Salei led the Avs in both hits (19) and blocked shots (15)
- Quenneville might want to let Forsberg take more draws in round two. In the Wild series, he was 72.2% in the circle in limited use (18 taken)
- The Wild led for just 4:31 in the series, and didn't lead at all in the final 3 games of the series.
We're the only Western team to advance so far. The other 3 series are all 3-2, but two of the teams that can clinch - Detroit and San Jose - are on the road today. All 3 Western Conference games are today, and any necessary game sevens in the West will be on Tuesday. It's possible we won't know our next opponent until then.
I want to send some quick kudos to the Wild bloggers out there. I've enjoyed checking out the series from a Minnesota perspective and definitely appreciate that everyone not named "Russo" kept things fun, intelligent and level-headed. While I can't say I'm sorry to see the Wild lose, I do know how hard it is to see a team you are passionate about falls short of their goals. This isn't the first epic playoff battle between our respective clubs, and I am certain it won't be the last.
And now, on to the quotes...
The Avalanche clinched its Western Conference quarterfinal playoff series Saturday night with a tightly-contested 2-1 win over the Minnesota Wild before a roaring sellout crowd at the Pepsi Center. - Rick Sadowski, Rocky Mountain News
The Wild won their first division crown this season but Minnesota held a lead in the series for only 4 minutes, 31 seconds out of a possible 384:23, and not a single second on this night. - Associated Press
I also underestimated that Jacques Lemaire would screw up his lineup a little too much the last three games. Chris Simon had no business being on the ice in this series, for starters. It’s like watching a 49-year-old Joe Frazier out there on skates, for all Simon brings a team now. - Adrian Dater, All Things Avs
Not much to say about the third period–didn’t see the killer desire needed to get that last goal and the Avs played great shut-down defense. Disappointing end to the season, but I get to shave the scratchy playoff beard and save some serious money on additional playoff tickets. - David Kingsbury, Hockey in Minnesota
(but in a manly way) - Tapeleg, Jerseys and Hockey Love
Ryan Smyth, third liner. It never did sound right and, sure enough, he didn't play like one against the Wild, notching two goals and an assist in the series. - Jim Armstrong, Denver Post
For Ryan Smyth, Saturday's Game 6 and the series as a whole were sweet justification for the massive contract the Avalanche gave him last summer. After a season during which he was hindered by injuries and what was seen as a demotion to the third line at the end of the season, Smyth was a money man for the Avs on Saturday. - Denver Post
I am starting to loathe Ryan Smyth. Ever since leaving Edmonton he has fallen in my favor. I was somehow ok with him being good for them since it's the Oil, but for Colorado? - Kirsten, Land of Lakes and Hockey
It came down to one final faceoff, the last battle in a grueling series full of them. Joe Sakic versus Mikko Koivu, 21.7 seconds left, with the opportunity to advance to the second round of the playoffs on the line. Sakic won it. So did the Avalanche. Goodbye, Wild. Bring on the next foe. - Adrian Dater, Denver Post
With each win, with each round, the Theodore story becomes more remarkable. He's right: The Avalanche organization opened itself to considerable second-guessing when it didn't buy out the final year of his contract, which would have taken about a $4 million investment. In a sense, what he did to convince the Avs to stick with him didn't involve his play, but his attitude. By continuing to work hard, not grousing openly and getting along with Peter Budaj, it added up to a conclusion that what the heck, the Avs might as well ride out the final season of his $16 million, three-year contract. - Terry Frei, Denver Post
There's no way I could possibly write a summary of Theodore's performance in the first round that would do him justice. He was simply phenomenal. Six games, four wins, a 1.88 goals against average and a save percentage of .940. Successful playoff teams rely on their goalies to carry them, and Jose Theodore has certainly carried the Avalanche. The Wild didn't stand a chance. - Joe, Mile High Hockey
Goaltending was the key difference here. Jose Theodore was much better than Backstrom. That's really what it came down to. Theodore stole a game and Backstrom did not. The wrap around shot by Smyth last night would've been stopped by Theodore, but Backstrom was so deep in the net his ass was touching the netting. Get out and cut down the angle! - Roy, Wild Puck Banter
In the Wild locker room, Gaborik didn't duck from reporters, and he answered the same questions from multiple mouths. The bottom line: He is not sure how he produced just one point in the series. - Mike Chambers, Denver Post
It is impossible to say the Wild did put forth enough effort, and even though it didn’t end how it wanted it to the team battled in every game. The Wild pushed the Avalanche to its limits but just did not have enough to get the critical plays it needed to counteract the Avalanche’s superior depth. - Derek Felska, The State of Hockey News
I do have to shout out to Nick Schultz, who played tonite for the 1st time in the playoffs after his appendectomy. He gave what he had for the team, and that is why he is a stalwart on this team. - J., Wild View from Section 216
The Wild end the season as the only 2007-2008 division champion not to at least go to a Game 7 in their first round series; the Northwest Division winner has been eliminated in the first round in 4 of the last 5 seasons. - Wild Road Tripper, Hitting the Post
Its a fashionable time for Wild Nation to start with the excuses; the injuries, the bounces, luck, the refs, etc; maybe that's easier than just admitting we got flat out beat by the better team. - Dan, Deuce by Definition
Other than that, just try and keep your head up and realize that there is always next year. And while you’re at it, you might want to look at making a coaching change for the Wild. Jacques Lemaire seems nice and all, but he just doesn’t coach the type of game that will win the State of Hockey it’s first Stanley Cup. - Aaron D'Albey, The Dog and Pony Show
Quenneville earned himself a contract extension with those three games (if he wants it) and frankly he deserves it. His coaching in the last three games was outstanding, and more importantly he out-coached Jaques Lemaire in this series. That's an impressive feat. - Jibblescribbits.
It's easy to pin everything on Gaborik, and no doubt he'll receive the majority of the blame this summer (does the Wild offer him a $10 million-a-year extension now?). But the Wild also got little from a number of players. Eric Belanger, whom Lemaire predicted would get "80 points" after racking up seven in his first seven games, scored one goal since Jan. 13 and no goals and two assists since Feb. 20. He was pointless in the series. Pavol Demitra had one goal in the series, Derek Boogaard had no points this season, rookie James Sheppard didn't score a goal after Jan. 30. Stephane Veilleux didn't have a point in the series. Keith Carney's overtime goal in Game 2 was the only goal from the blue line in the series. - Michael Russo, Star-Tribune
Lots of players may have played their last games with the Wild tonight. Maybe Brian Rolston (the Wild should bring him back), maybe Pavol Demitra, maybe Aaron Voros. I’d think they’d want back Todd Fedoruk and Branko Radivojevic. Keith Carney is almost certainly done here, but somebody should pick him up because he can still play. Sean Hill, Chris Simon and Petteri Nummelin’s NHL careers may have ended tonight, and none of the three played. - Michael Russo, Russo's Rants
Avalanche defenseman Brett Clark, who had surgery in January for a dislocated shoulder, has resumed skating with the team, but don't expect him to be playing in the playoffs. - Denver Post