DENVER – Hockey players are superstitious fellows, so after three previous road losses in the Western Conference quarterfinals, the Wild made what coach Mike Yeo called some “subtle changes” before Wednesday’s Game 7 against the Colorado Avalanche.
“OK, pretty much everything,” Yeo said, laughing.
Everything from flight times to meal times to locker room stall locations for every player was changed. Players even went as far to change the post-skate bus times Wednesday from 12:30 and 12:50 to 12:27 and 12:47.
Hey, whatever works.
The Wild put an exclamatory dent on the Central Division champion Avalanche’s home-ice advantage Wednesday night by rallying from four one-goal deficits to eliminate Colorado 5-4 in overtime.
“It was a roller coaster of a game,” Wild defenseman Ryan Suter said. “What a series. This group, we’ve got something special here.”
Nino Niederreiter’s second goal of the game 5 minutes, 2 seconds into OT catapulted the Wild into the second round for the first time since 2003. Minnesota, ousted by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks last season, will meet them again in the conference semifinals starting Friday in Chicago.
“To score a Game 7 overtime winner, it’s the biggest goal you can score,” Niederreiter said. “I’m very happy. I wasn’t quite sure it went in, though.”
Niederreiter, who redeemed himself from a first-period penalty that led to a goal, also assisted on Jared Spurgeon’s tying goal with 2:27 left to send the game into overtime. That goal answered Erik Johnson’s go-ahead goal six minutes prior.
The Wild got goals by Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley. The Johnson goal was the second straight stoppable shot Darcy Kuemper allowed. At the next stoppage, Suter skated up to Kuemper, who was pulled from the game for Ilya Bryzgalov with an injury. A period earlier, Kuemper collided behind the net with Colorado’s Matt Duchene. When Kuemper fell, his head hit Suter, but he never left the game.
Kuemper, who missed the final seven regular-season games and didn’t start the first two games of the playoffs with a concussion, looked shaken afterward, but Yeo didn’t have an update on his status.
Bryzgalov, who lost Games 1 and 2, didn’t face a shot in the final 8:13 of regulation. The only shot Bryzgalov faced came 2:18 into overtime when Paul Stastny’s shot hit his shoulder.
“Series-saving save,” Suter called it.
Now there’s a chance Bryzgalov starts against Chicago.
“If only we had any experience dealing with this,” Yeo said sarcastically of the Wild’s season-long goalie carousel, one Zach Parise jokingly called “the never-ending circus.”
After the Wild couldn’t execute back-to-back odd-man rushes at the start of the third period, Stastny’s goal 2:55 in snapped a 2-2 tie. Less than four minutes, Niederreiter sniped a beauty over Semyon Varlamov’s blocker for his first career playoff goal.
“He raised the bar,” Yeo said of Niederreiter, acquired last June from the Islanders. “He got himself in trouble now because this is what we expect.”
But the Wild’s tight neutral zone was penetrated when P.A. Parenteau, who also set up Stastny’s goal, split defensemen Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin. Kuemper stopped the breakaway, but the puck worked back to the blue line and Johnson whistled it through Kuemper’s five-hole.
For arguably the third time in four games in Denver, the Wild played well enough to win. For the first time, it actually achieved that feat.
“Intense, tough, nerve- racking,” Parise said of the game. “That doesn’t happen often, coming back four different times. We fought and we fought and we kept fighting.”
After the Avs’ strong start, which included an 8-2 shot lead and an early goal the Wild felt shouldn’t count because Jamie McGinn was on top of Kuemper, the Wild found its legs and tied it on Koivu’s first goal of the series.
The Wild gave up one shot in the final 13 minutes of the period. That, unfortunately for Minnesota, would be a softie through Kuemper’s wickets by McGinn after some soft backchecking by the Wild. The goal was the first at even-strength by Colorado’s third or fourth line in the series.
The Wild then didn’t surrender a shot in the first nine minutes of the second and tied the score at 2-2 on Heatley’s 16th career playoff goal and 60th career playoff point. Heatley had a goal and two assists, springing the 2-on-1 that led to the game-winner.
“That game was an instant classic,” Heatley said. “Back and forth all game.”