There is absolutely nothing like playoff hockey!

Tonight the Minnesota Wild played host to the Colorado Avalanche in Game 1 of their best of 7 series in the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup. This game contained hard hitting action, great goals, and was the intense spectacle sports fans crave for once the post season arrives. These two teams last met in Colorado on Sunday April 6th, in their final game of the 2007-2008 regular NHL season. The Avalanche won that close meeting in a shoot out, 4-3. These teams also have a prior post season history; The Wild eliminated the Avalanche from the playoffs in 2003. They were down 1 game to 3 in the series, and facing elimination, won three straight to take the series 4 games to 3. Needless to say, bad blood exists between these two teams. Kind of like the post season rivalry between the Buffalo Sabres and the Carolina Hurricanes/Ottawa Senators. Despite the Sabres missing the playoffs by a frustrating 4 points this season, tonight made it easy for me to jump on the band wagon of the Minnesota Wild. Even if they did lose the game 3-2 in the first overtime period.

The beginning two periods of the game were frustrating for the Wild. Despite a valiant effort by Minnesota in checking, hitting, and putting pucks on net, the Avalanche were the ones who received the lucky bounces during the first forty minutes of play. After a scoreless first period, Kurt Sauer and Ryan Smyth both got the puck past Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom to take the lead by two. Also in the second period, Wild right winger Mark Parrish left the game after he took a nasty hit alongside the boards and injured his head. Still, the Wild fans helped to keep their players in the game as they would cheer every timea Minnesota player would drop an opponent to the ice with a big hit, which happened often. After two periods Minnesota out shot the Avalanche 20-7, but entered the third period being down 0-2.

Enter the third period. With 3:02 gone by, the Wild finally got a bounce and found the back of the net. In the Colorado zone, Mikko Koivu skillfully dodged an Avalanche player as he showed off some impressive stick skills, and flung the puck through traffic in an attempted pass to Brian Rolston who was in front of the net. Luckily, the puck bounced off of a defenders skate and slid past Jose Theodore to put the Wild on the board. Then three minutes and eleven seconds later, Todd Fedoruk (all alone in front of the net) used patience and impressive stick work to punch the puck past Theodore to tie the game 2-2 while on the power play. It took the Wild special teams unit five power play attempts to finally score, as they had 12 shots and 0 goals on their previous four. Moments before the goal, Wild super-star Marian Gaborik took a face crushing hit along the glass and Fedoruk responded by painfully crushing the Colorado player against the boards. And then he scored. After Fedoruktied the game, the camera panned immediately to the Wild bench as the entire team and coaching staff were going nuts. Games withthird period comebacks are always the most fun to watch, especially when the team you are cheering for is the one coming back! With Fedoruk’s goal, memories of the Sabres awesome third period comeback against the Lightning from a few weeks ago began to resurface. However, I then remembered that the Sabres weren’t in the playoffs.

The rest of the third period was hard hitting, fast paced, and very intense. With under ten minutes left to play, the Avalanche had managed to put only 12 shots on goal and yet the game was tied at two a piece. An interesting encounter happened when Colorado player Ryan Smyth very obviously tripped Minnesota’s Petteri Nummelin. Nummelinhad the puck and was leaving the Minnesota zone when his feet were taken out from underneathhim. He slid along the ice on his belly, and eventually crashed against the boards in front of the Wild bench. Smyth then looked up at the referee closest to him with his arms out, as if to say, “Yep. I’m getting a penalty.” But there was no whistle. He knew he tripped Nummelin. Everyone in the Xcel Center knew he tripped Nummelin. Every sports fan watching the game saw the trip. Yet, somehow none of the officials on the ice saw the play, even though the victimized player had possession of the puck. Regardless, the whistle never blew and Smyth was the first to realize it, and the play continued. He took the puck into the Minnesota zone all alone, and as the crowd reigned down their boos upon him, Smyth took a shot at Niklas Backstrom. Backstrom responded like a goalie who needs to keep his team in a close game, and he made a huge arm save to keep the score tied.  

With just under six minutes left in the third period, a Colorado goal was waved off when David Jones kicked the puck into the net. In the NHL, if a player kicks the puck into the net, it does not count as a goal. So the result was ‘no goal’! (heh) Then with 2:27 remaining in the game, a penalty shot was awarded to Smyth because Wild defenseman Keith Carney closed his hand around the puck during a scrum in front of the Minnesota net. This penalty shot was huge for both teams; With under three minutes to play in the game, a one goal lead is substantial. On the penalty shot, Smyth brought the puck in on Backstrom, did a fake, and then made a fore-handed shot. Backstrom responded with his second big save of the night on Ryan Smyth by falling into the A-Frame, and stopping the puck with his right pad. Despite the big save, the Avalanche took control of the momentum for the final two minutes of regulation, and carried that momentum into overtime.

Momentum is key in playoff hockey. In overtime, the game was less physical and both teams played more cautiously. No player wanted to risk making ‘that’ mistake. Unfortunately for the Wild, the more conservative game play aided the Avalanche. All game the Wild were playing fast and physical, but when they retreated into playing a more defensive style, Colorado took advantage of the situation. The Wild defense collapsed majorly for nearly a minute in the OT period, allowing Backstomto get pelted with shots. But the goalie stood tall and kept his team in it. . . Until Joe Sakic scored his 8th career overtime game winner of the post season. The puck went off of a player in front of the Minnesota net, and Sakic punched it home on the rebound with a backhand to win Game 1.

The Wild can’t hang their heads too long over this loss. Yes, they lost, but at the same time they out worked and out played their opponent for a large portion of the game, both physically and by out shooting them 30-22. They didn’t give up tonight despite being down by two goals in the third period. The team still managed to come back and force overtime, which is impressive in a playoff atmosphere. The Wild do need to improve on their special teams production, however, if they expect to make a serious run at The Cup. With 6 power play chances tonight, the Wild could only score on one of them despite getting at least 12 shots with the man advantage. Also, they let the Avalanche score on the power play, and they only had two of them. Looking across the ice, if the Colorado Avalanche expect to advance onto the next round of the playoffs, they need to realize that the Stanley Cup is not won by a winning one game, but by winning a series. Minnesota hit Colorado hard all night (except for the OT period), and if the Avalanche don’t want to get worn down by game 5, they need to step it up. Despite what the scoreboard says, for the majority of the game they were playing to Wild’s tempo and nearly getting caught lost in it. If not for outstanding goal tending by Jose Theodore, the Wild could have easily blown the game open early. Again, after two periods the Wild out shot the Avalanche 20-7. But in the end, the Avalanche stayed patient and received one more lucky bounce than the Wild.

This is only Game 1. I say the Wild win this series in 6.