End of the line

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Minnesota winger Nino Niederreiter’s winning goal in overtime of Game 7 bounced out of the net and hit Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov in the back of the leg before he could turn around.

The final score of the series was 22-20 over seven games. Three were empty-net goals, two by Minnesota and one by Colorado. Eliminate those and the final score was 20-19 in favor of Minnesota. Close, in other words.

But a pattern that developed over the first-round playoff series repeated itself in the decisive seventh game so insistently that it was hard not to get the point. In spurts of awe-inspiring talent, the Avalanche would take the lead. In long stretches of determined, opportunistic aggression, the Wild would catch the young Avs in mistakes and come back.

Colorado went up two games to none in the friendly confines of its own building, then scored one goal in two games in Minnesota as the Wild evened the series. The Avs took a 3-2 lead. The Wild tied it.

So it came down to one game, the fabled Game 7, which turned into a microcosm of the series. The Avs went up 1-0. The Wild tied it. The Avs went up 2-1. The Wild tied it. The Avs went up 3-2. The Wild tied it. The Avs went up 4-3. With two minutes, 27 seconds remaining in regulation, the Wild tied it, taking a page out of the Avs’ book.

And then, like a pool hustler, the Wild took its first lead of the game and first lead of the series with a game- and series-winning overtime goal, its fifth of the game. Suddenly, Minnesota is moving on, to play Chicago. Colorado, which had led or been tied the whole way, is done.

On the bright side, it wasn’t nearly as bad as what happened to the San Jose Sharks, who went up three games to none on the Los Angeles Kings, then lost four in a row. That’s embarrassing. What happened to the Avs was not embarrassing. It was a rite of passage for a team whose best players range in age from 18 to 23.

“When you learn how to win, not how to win, but you have more experience in the playoffs, then obviously you start to know how to win those big games,” said Patrick Roy, whose first season as Avalanche coach ended on a bittersweet note.

“Those two goals, our neutral zone forecheck was good all night long and then all of a sudden we start making a couple mistakes here and there and they took advantage of it. This is a team that went through that last year with Chicago, got beat by, I think, four straight by Chicago, or five, I can’t remember the exact number [it was five], but it’s a learning process, and I think next year our guys in the playoffs might be a little more calm in those situations and react differently.”

Interesting concept, knowing how to win. The Avs proved they can win with desperation. They did it twice in the series, tying a game in the final two minutes, then winning it in overtime. But in a certain sense, desperation is easy. Your job is to go full bore to score because if you don’t, you lose. If your opponent scores into your empty net, well, you were going to lose anyway.

Protecting a one-goal lead is a different, more complicated art. You must be more concerned with defense, of course, but you can’t be so concerned with defense that you give away all aggressiveness and momentum, because at that point it’s just a matter of time before your opponent’s onslaught produces a goal. Whenever the Avalanche had the lead, in Game 7 or in the series, it seemed to be unsure how to handle it.

“It was a back-and-forth game,” said Matt Duchene, the team’s leading scorer during the regular season who returned from a knee injury to play in the last two games of the series, both losses as it turned out.

“What we can take away from this is at the end of a game like that when we need to clamp it down, we need to execute even better with the puck. And without it, we have to be sharp. You don’t let your heart race too much. You’ve got to stay in control and just get it done. It’s too bad we couldn’t get it done but we were right there. We were right there all night. We got the lead, I think, all game. Their only lead was the one that wins the game. So, disappointing.”

The enduring appeal of Game 7 has to do with finality. It’s like a Supreme Court decision. There is no appeal. This can produce an excruciatingly boring, careful sort of hockey, but it certainly didn’t Wednesday night at Pepsi Center.

This Game 7, the first for most of the Avs and a fair number of the Wild, started with a goal credited to Avalanche defenseman Nick Holden on a rebound just 2:52 into the game. As the puck was crossing the goal line, Avs winger Jamie McGinn was sliding into the cage and its tender, Darcy Kuemper. The goal was first waved off as goalie interference, then the light went on, then it was approved on appeal by Big Brother.

“That’s one of those plays where, obviously, when it goes in your net, you’re going to be frustrated about it,” Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said. “I would think that if we were on the other side, we would probably be expecting kind of a similar call. What I give our guys an awful lot of credit for is we didn’t get caught up in any of that stuff. We didn’t alter. There’s a lot of games through this series where I thought that we were playing very well through a game, something bad happened, and then we kind of got away. I thought just the composure, the character, to stay with our game, to stay with the process that we’ve set out and to trust it all the way through, that’s real impressive for our group.”

The Wild responded 8:04 into the first period when team captain Mikko Koivu fired a shot from the left circle. With Avs goaltender Semyon Varlamov hugging the right post of the goal, Koivu hit the inside of the left post, the first of a series of shots that appeared to be steered by a satellite-controlled global positioning system.

The Avs took the lead for the second time when Joey Hishon centered the puck from the right boards for McGinn, who didn’t shoot it so much as redirect Hishon’s pass on net. The puck slithered between Kuemper’s skates. After one period, the Avs led 2-1.

Minnesota tied it for the second time 7:27 into the second period. It was not recorded as a power play goal, but it grew out of a power play formation. A penalty to Hishon for high sticking had been over for two seconds when Mikael Granlund tried to replicate Koivu’s shot, aiming for the right-hand edge of the goal from the left offensive circle. Varlamov slid to his left to block it with his leg pad.

Unfortunately, the puck never got there. It hit Holden in the backside, ricocheted off McGinn’s shin pad and bounced to the ice, right in front of veteran Wild winger Dany Heatley. As the puck ran away from him, Heatley took a swipe and sent a knuckleball into the space Varlamov had vacated to block Granlund’s shot. When the second period ended, the score was 2-2.

The Avs took their third lead 2:55 into the third period. Winger P.A. Parenteau made a beautiful pass from behind the Minnesota net out to Paul Stastny, between the circles. Stastny one-timed it right back on net, hitting the inside of the left post and watching it bounce in.

The Wild tied it for the third time less than four minutes later, 6:33 into the third, when winger Nino Niederreiter took a pass at the top of the right circle and rifled a shot over Varlamov’s right shoulder. You could hear the sound of the puck hitting metal. I’m not sure if it was the crossbar or the left post. I’m also not sure I’ve ever seen a game in which so many goals struck metal on the way in.

The Avs took the lead for the fourth time at 11:16 of the third, on a play that began with Parenteau splitting two Minnesota defensemen — Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin — and getting a point blank shot on Kuemper. The Wild goaltender made the save. Duchene, crashing the net, flicked the rebound over to the right circle, where Parenteau, circling back, passed it to defenseman Erik Johnson up high, by the Stanley Cup logo. Johnson drilled it past Kuemper.

Kuemper left the game shortly afterward and was replaced by Ilya Bryzgalov, who started Games 1 and 2 before being relieved. Kuemper conferred with the Minnesota trainer before departing. Bryzgalov would spend 13 minutes, 15 seconds in net. He would be credited with one save. It was a good one.

The Wild tied it for the fourth time with 2:27 left in regulation. By Avalanche standards, this was not exactly crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. Yeo hadn’t even pulled his goaltender yet. The Avs tied Game 1 with 13.4 seconds remaining. They tied Game 5 with 1:14 left. This time, they were 2:27 away from winning the game and the series 4-3 and advancing to play the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the next round.

Then Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon, the one faked off his feet by Avs rookie Nathan MacKinnon in Game 2, took a pass in the right offensive circle. MacKinnon, hanging out between the circles, suddenly realized Spurgeon was uncovered and raced over. Spurgeon waited patiently, using the recovering MacKinnon’s momentum against him, just as MacKinnon had used Spurgeon’s against him five games earlier. Once MacKinnon slid helplessly past, Spurgeon lifted a shot over Varlamov’s right shoulder, hitting the inside of the left post and watching it ricochet into the net.

Afterward, the 18-year-old MacKinnon blamed himself for the tying goal.

“I think Mac learned a lot tonight,” Roy said. “It’s a different game. He knows what he can do offensively. Now he’s learning sometimes defensively he’s going to have to do some things a little different. But that makes him already a better hockey player, and that’s what you want. But I don’t want any of my players blaming themselves for the loss. We win and we lose as a team and tonight we lost as a team.”

It was 4-4 at the end of regulation. The Avalanche had its best chance to win the game in overtime a little more than two minutes in. MacKinnon had the puck on the left side as part of a three-on-two with Johnson in the middle and Gabriel Landeskog on the right side. MacKinnon stopped by the left boards, gathered the puck and centered it to a trailing Stastny, who lifted it toward the top right corner of the goal. Bryzgalov got just enough of his left shoulder on the shot to deflect it wide of the post.

Moments later, Minnesota had a chance to win when Granlund beat Duchene to the puck and took a point-blank shot at Varlamov, trying to squeeze it inside the left post. Varlamov kicked it away.

Almost five minutes into the overtime, the Avs had another chance when Johnson centered the puck for Parenteau in the crease. The pass was deflected out to Heatley, who passed it up the ice to center Kyle Brodziak, who found himself alongside Niederreiter with only Avs defenseman Andre Benoit between them and the goal. Brodziak passed the puck to Niederreiter. Benoit retreated, trying to cover them both.

As Niederreiter approached the net from the right side, Benoit slid to the ice and tried to get in front of him to block his shot. Niederreiter lifted the puck just wide of Benoit over Varlamov’s right shoulder. It hit the crossbar and ricocheted into the back of the net with such velocity that it bounced back out and hit Varlamov on the back of the leg before he could turn around to see where it had gone. The officials had to review it to make sure it had gone in. The overhead camera confirmed it did.

The Wild exulted by the boards, feeling all the jubilation of its first lead in the game, first lead in the series, and a series victory all at once. The Avs stood around for a few moments in disbelief that their first moment trailing in the game, first moment trailing in the series, could also be the end of the whole thing.

“We felt confident,” said Landeskog, the team captain. “We felt like we had it. Every time we scored I felt like we had all the momentum. And then they came back, whether it was off the rush or whatever it might have been, and yeah, I mean, they did a good job. We’ve got to tip our hats to them. They deserved this one. They made nice plays. Every single goal was nice. So it’s tough. We worked so hard. Game 7, we had the crowd with us and we worked so hard and then it goes the wrong way. It’s a weird feeling.”

Center-turned-winger Ryan O’Reilly was angry.

“We didn’t become a team in the toughest times,” he said. “Our performance was embarrassing on the road, and it’s something we have to learn. Definitely if you can’t win on the road, you’re never going to win a Cup. We were lucky to have a chance to win tonight with how inconsistent we were all series. Definitely not happy with this. This is embarrassing for us. We could have done a lot better. It sucks. It’s frustrating.”

In time, this will be a relatively easy one to swallow. The Avs are ridiculously young. As an organization, it was the first trip to the postseason in four years. It was also the first season under Roy as coach and Joe Sakic running the front office hockey operation. In time, it will look like a preview of coming attractions.

Still, they had persuaded themselves they could do more right away.

“As much as we were dreaming it would be possible to win the Stanley Cup, we knew it would be tough for us to win the Stanley Cup because we’re not there yet,” Roy said. “It’s hard to say that, but it’s a fact.”

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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