For part of Monday night, it looked as if the Wild was staring at an offseason of regret.
Most notably, there were those two overtime losses in Denver, both coming in games in which the Wild relinquished late leads because it couldn’t score into five-plus minutes worth of empty nets.
But as goalie Darcy Kuemper said after the Wild forced a Game 7 Wednesday with a 5-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche, “I thought we were due for a few empty-netters.”
The Wild got a couple.
After Zach Parise scored his second goal of the game to break a 2-2 tie with 6 minutes, 29 seconds left, intrepid Avalanche coach Patrick Roy pulled goalie Semyon Varlamov with 2:44 left. The Wild not only buried one empty-netter, it buried a second for good measure to send an ecstatic Xcel Energy Center crowd of 19,314 home happy.
“It’s been just sitting there empty for us for long minutes at the end of the games and finally we were able to hit it,” Kuemper said with a big smile.
Thanks in large part to Parise’s career-high four points in an anxiety-filled hockey game that featured an incredible pace, the Wild avoided a season-ending loss by recovering from a blown two-goal first-period lead.
With virtually the entire lower-bowl’s worth of stressed fans standing for the entire third period, coach Mike Yeo reunited the Parise-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle line. It worked, as Parise redirected Koivu’s shot from the blue line for the eventual winning goal.
“He goes to the hard areas and gets rewarded,” defenseman Ryan Suter said.
The arena felt as if it was shaking as Parise celebrated wildly.
“They were incredible again,” Parise said of the fans. “After the first two games, you’re thinking, ‘How can it get better?’ And it keeps getting better.”
Kuemper made 21 saves for his third victory of the series, Mikael Granlund also scored a goal and Koivu and Suter had two assists each. The Wild is 2-0 all-time in Game 7s and will be looking for its first road victory of the series Wednesday so it can advance to play the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round.
“Game 7’s going to be a lot like it was tonight,” Kuemper said. “I think we can use tonight to our advantage. We already had a game where our backs were against the wall. It was do or die. We have to carry over the same attitude we had tonight and use this experience Wednesday.”
The Wild emerged with exactly the start it wanted.
Parise scored the fastest playoff goal in Wild history 49 seconds in when Suter’s shot deflected in off Parise’s inner thigh. Granlund made it 2-0 less than nine minutes later by sailing a shot through Varlamov’s legs.
But with the chance to take a three-goal stranglehold on a 67-second 5-on-3, the Wild, 2-for-10 on 5-on-3’s in the regular season, failed royally.
With Paul Stastny in the box for slashing Cody McCormick in the groin and Andre Benoit in for delay of game, Suter shanked a shot just as Stastny escaped the box. Ryan O’Reilly corralled the puck, hit Stastny with a head-man pass and the skilled center easily beat Kuem- per blocker-side on a breakaway with 3:01 left in the first. It was the second time in two games the Avalanche scored shorthanded.
“It was a bad break,” Parise said. “With the shot, the shot block, the timing of the guy coming out of the box, it was a bunch of bad things happening at the same time.”
There was an ominous feeling in the air and the Wild didn’t look like a same team to start the second.
“We started to get a little fear in our game,” Yeo said.
After Matt Moulson took a penalty, the Wild’s penalty kill broke for only the second time in 22 times in the series when O’Reilly hit Nick Holden with a cross-crease pass for the tying goal.
But the Wild responded and overcame what could have been a backbreaking rally. Now, on to Denver.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs. It would have been easy to throw in the towel,” Suter said. “We showed a lot of character.”