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How do you react as a player or a fan when a team blows a 4-1 lead in the third period of a playoff Game 7?
Well, you get sad. And mad. And everything in between.
And what if the final two goals to tie the score in regulation came in the final 2 minutes ... and what if this all happened to Toronto, perhaps the most hockey-proud city in the world?
Extra sad. Extra mad.
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul won’t soon forget Monday night’s game against the Boston Bruins.
A day after his team’s stunning Game 7 collapse, Lupul took to Twitter to vent his frustration.
“That hockey game will haunt me until the day I die,” he tweeted Tuesday afternoon.
The unshaven faces of sadness and disappointment walked through and around the Maple Leafs dressing room, their expressions of shock saying more than their words could muster.
It was that difficult. It was that challenging. It was, in so many ways, that sad for the Maple Leafs.
It was only the first round, and yet still we imagine this is comparable to what Vikings fans have felt in gut-punch NFC title games. If you see someone in a Leafs jersey, go easy. Maybe offer a hug.
As Minnesota's four major men's pro sports teams hit rock bottom as a collective in 2011 -- none of them made the playoffs, and none were particularly close in the end -- we wondered which would be the next of the bunch to make the playoffs.
Now that we are into May of 2013, the times are better. The Vikings and Wild have made the playoffs since that query. The Timberwolves at least have the makings of a nucleus that could challenge for a spot. The Twins have already moved the needle from hopeless to functional and are a few more prospects and Oswaldo Arcia blasts away from being downright intriguing.
As such, we revisit the question with the bar set higher: What will be the next of the four to WIN a playoff series (or, in the Vikings' case, a game)?
This is a bit of a dare-we-dream proposition, considering that from the time immediately after Randy Moss' disgusting act at Lambeau until this very moment -- a span of more than eight calendar years -- the Vikings' playoff victory following the 2009 season is the only example of postseason advancement among the four. But why shouldn't we dream big? Let's set some percentages:
Vikings: 40 percent. A 10-win team added a batch of talent through the draft, found a receiver in Greg Jennings and a functional backup QB who can start if needed in Matt Cassel. A return trip to the postseason is not a lock, but you don't have to squint too much to see it, either. And once there, the NFL is the easiest to advance since it's a one-game proposition. Get a couple of bounces, and the Vikings are the winner.
Wild: 35 percent. Cornerstone players like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter aren't going anywhere for a LONG time, while more young reinforcements are on the way to join the likes of Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin and Jason Zucker. A lot of new components were pulled together in a slapdash 48-game season. Minnesota faltered in the final month, or it would have won the division and had a much better chance of advancing. But at least the Wild made the playoffs. Still, there are questions galore. Will Mike Yeo and Chuck Fletcher be back? What will the Wild do at the goalie spot? And will they thrive playing in a tougher realigned division next season? That said, more than half the NHL teams make the playoffs, and seeding often means little once you get there -- unless you have to play a team like Chicago. The Wild took a step this year and could very well take another next year.
Twins: 15 percent. It's probably not happening this year, even with the team's improvement. Even 2014 might be early. But if the Wild and Vikings don't win soon, the Twins will be primed to make a push starting in 2015.
Wolves: 10 percent. Even if the Wolves get the shooting guard they so desperately need ... and get a fully healthy and engaged Kevin Love back ... the West is loaded and could remain that way for a while. Five teams won at least 56 games in the West this year. The Wolves should set their sights on a return to .500 and then start wondering about the playoffs and next steps.
Your thoughts, please, in the comments. But please: Limit this to the four teams mentioned. Of course the Lynx have a great chance of advancing this year. Other pro teams here have won playoff games in the eight-year span as well. But for our purposes, we are dealing with the Wild, Vikings, Twins and Wolves.
During the first three games of the Wild-Blackhawks series, we watched from the comfort of the couch. That changed in Game 4, with NHL enthusiast Rocket in town. It was time to pay up and see our first live playoff hockey game in a decade.
What we saw was ghastly at times. The Wild's first line, determined but often overmatched in this series, gave up two turnovers (one by Mikko Koivu, the other by Zach Parise) that led to the first to Chicago goals. The Wild's goaltending situation is something we have never seen, with the starter and top backup injured within four games. We also saw what has been evident throughout: Chicago is the more skilled team by a couple of lengths, if not more.
To make up for that, the Wild has either played a tight defensive game (Game 1 overtime loss in which they were a crossbar away from victory) or a very good and physical overall game (Game 3 overtime victory) to make this series competitive.
Game 4, one which often lacked flow or much of a spark beyond the first 10 minutes, was one in which another truth became evident: as frustrating as he can be, Dany Heatley is sorely missed in this lineup. Game 4 begged for his natural goal-scoring ability. Parise, at his best, is a relentless worker and gifted player, but he is no sniper. Neither is Koivu. The Wild, in this matchup and with this lineup, need effort goals and good bounces. What they needed Wednesday, particularly during six fruitless power plays, was someone who could find a corner of the net and hit it.
Heatley was injured in early April, missing the stretch run of the regular season and the playoffs. He had 11 goals in 36 games before that -- not exactly prolific, but it was tied for third on the team at the time. Minnesota scored one or zero goals in half of its final 12 games without Heatley. In the playoffs, Minnesota has six goals in four games, including Tuesday's shutout loss.
Heatley's presence most likely wouldn't have been the difference between winning and losing this series, so let's not call this an excuse. It would be foolish to believe that given just how good the Blackhawks are. But he would have helped -- particularly last night.
A group of players who held their sticks so tightly down the stretch of the regular season that there were likely fingerprints on them through their hockey gloves played with poise. An emergency start by Josh Harding in place of Niklas Backstrom galvanized the team's defensive effort, while Harding was superb. And the mighty Hawks were getting more flustered with every deflected pass and blocked shot.
If Jason Zucker's shot is an inch lower in overtime, into the net instead of off the crossbar ... or if Zach Parise's point-blank attempt hadn't caught a piece of Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford, the script would have been finished as a fairy tale and a stunner.
Instead, Chicago scored its second pretty goal of the game late in the first overtime, and all the Wild has to show for its effort is a 1-0 series deficit.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
1) Harding can still rise to the occasion. Given Harding's diagnosis and significant rust, what he did Tuesday was nothing short of amazing. He was tremendous, and if he gets the Game 2 start as well there is at least something to build on going in.
2) Zucker belongs. He was the most dangerous forward on the ice for the Wild -- partially because Chicago's top line almost completely neutralized the Wild's top line, and vice-versa -- and created great chances with his speed and quickness.
3) As if we didn't already know this, winning will not be easy. The Wild did the necessary work to create some favorable bounces -- slight deflections that caused Chicago to be off-side numerous times on dangerous chances, for example -- but even playing air-tight for much of the night, the Wild still allowed plenty of opportunities.
WHAT DO WE NEED TO FIND OUT?
1) Can the Wild bounce back mentally from such a tough loss? As encouraged as players must be by the effort, the outcome still stings.
2) Can the Parise-Koivu-Coyle line generate more offense? Coyle's physical play was basically bottled up by good stick work and body work by Chicago in the corners. When that line is clicking, he is controlling plays along the wall while Koivu and Parise are cycling like mad to create chances. The stakes are higher now, and the opponent is better. They must find a way.
3) Will Jason Pominville return? Having Pominville and Heatley out at the same time re-establishes how few natural goal scorers the Wild has. Heatley is out. Pominville, though, would give instant credibility to the second line and add much needed scoring to the lineup.
Your thoughts, please, in the comments.
The Wild's first playoff appearance in five years is a strange double-edged sword. The team played itself into the postseason with a victory on Saturday over Colorado, but it also played itself into the predicament of having to face the No. 1-seeded Blackhawks in the first round by virtue of a late-season slide.
If there is good news here -- aside from just making the postseason -- it is based on history. Seeding has often meant little in the NHL playoffs of late; when the Wild made the 2003 West finals it was as a No. 6 seed, where it lost to No. 7-seed Anaheim. Also: The Wild played Chicago three times this season -- a 3-2 shootout victory, a 5-3 loss that involved one horrible period and a 1-0 loss earlier this month.
Our brain tells us that, based on the way the Wild played down the stretch, a Chicago sweep is as likely an outcome as anything. But the collective exhalation that seemed to occur after the Wild potted the empty-netter against the Avalanche to finally guarantee their postseason berth makes us think there could be more to this series.
As such, we arrived at this:
Game 1: Playing fast and loose, and with good goaltending, the Wild stuns Chicago in a 4-2 victory.
Game 2: Chicago comes out hot and never lets up in a 5-1 victory.
Game 3: Chicago keeps momentum going with a 3-1 win at the X.
Game 4: In what amounts to a must-win game, the X is rocking and the Wild steals a 3-2 victory.
Game 5: Back in Chicago, there are some tight moments but eventually Chicago takes a 3-2 victory.
Game 6: Back at the X, backs to the wall, the Wild runs out of gas in a 4-2 loss.
Your thoughts, please, in the comments.
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