DENVER – Erik Johnson guesses he had three inches to spare. Three inches to save a goal, save a game, maybe even save a season.
Three inches. That’s it.
Imagine how different things would feel if Johnson had skated a fraction of a second slower, if he hadn’t reached that rolling puck three inches from the goal line with his team down by one goal and 92 seconds left on the clock.
The answer, of course, is easy. The Wild wins, home ice shifts and the pressure on the Colorado Avalanche increases tenfold.
“If that doesn’t happen, that hustle out of EJ,” Game 1 hero Paul Stastny said, “we’re not here in this moment.”
Neither is the Wild, which instead must live with the harsh reality that it gave away a playoff game with some acute mistakes that created its undoing.
Johnson’s frantic save on Erik Haula’s long toss at an open net late in regulation allowed the Avs to tie the score with 13.4 seconds left on Stastny’s goal and then win it 5-4 in overtime on Stastny’s dagger.
Without Johnson’s save-the-day flick of the puck, the entire tone of Game 1 changes. Fans aren’t grumbling about how the Wild gagged on its two-goal lead. They’re not fuming (as much) about Kyle Brodziak’s awful turnover in the third period and his minus-3 stat line.
Or Jared Spurgeon’s inability to clear the puck out of his zone before the tying goal.
Or Mikael Granlund’s refusal to shoot — or even look to shoot — into a partly open net.
Or the fact that two Wild players ended up on their rears in front of the goal on Stastny’s winner.
Those plays would have become footnotes in a playoff victory, if they even happened at all, if not for those three inches.
“That’s just one of those desperation plays that you’ve got to make for the good of the team,” said Johnson, the Bloomington native and former Gopher.
That sequence played out in slow motion. Haula flipped the puck high out of the Wild’s end and toward Colorado’s empty net. The puck gained speed after it bounced and then slowed as it rolled toward the crease. Johnson raced in, lunged at the last second and swatted the puck away before crashing into the net.
From his bench, Avs coach Patrick Roy watched the play unfold and thought to himself: “C’mon, not like this.”
From his bench, Wild coach Mike Yeo thought to himself: “Hurry up, puck.”
Playoff series often resemble mini-dramas with their ebbs and flows and signature moments. The Wild had a chance to shift the pressure squarely to the Avs locker room. The Wild could have approached Game 2 from a position of strength and confidence, knowing the Avalanche could not afford to fall behind 0-2 in the series.
Maybe that desperation would have made the Avs play differently. Maybe they would have pressed and taken more chances and squeezed the stick a little tighter because 0-2 is an undesirable position.
And now? The Avs feel fortunate, buoyed. They didn’t play their best and still won.
“I just made a play that helped us win the game, just like a lot of other guys did,” Johnson said. “That play might stick out, but that’s not the only reason we were able to win.”
Actually, it is. The game is over without it, and that might have taken this series in an entirely different direction.
Instead, the Wild now has to regroup emotionally, forget about its missed opportunity and not allow those negative thoughts to seep into Game 2.
See what those three inches did?
“I think it would be a lot worse if we were dominated in the game or if we felt like we were badly outplayed,” Yeo said. “It’s frustrating that we let a game get away from us. But if we had won that game, there’s no guarantees, either.”
That’s true. This series still could take some strange twists and turns before it’s over.
If the Wild shakes off what happened and wins Saturday, the damage won’t look nearly as severe. The Wild did some nice things in Game 1 and controlled the play at different points.
It wasn’t enough, though. The Wild had its chance and blew it, undone by a hustle play. And three inches that changed everything.
Chip Scoggins email@example.com