CHICAGO – The Wild’s most important trip up the ice in 11 years began with a pass from a player who had been a healthy scratch in the first two games of the series.
Mr. Healthy Scratch sent a deft saucer pass to center ice, connecting with a player who made it back into the lineup only because of a teammate’s suspension. That center flicked a pass to his right, to the winger whose original team gave up on him last summer.
When Nino Niederreiter ripped a shot past Semyon Varlamov to give the Wild a 5-4 overtime victory over Colorado in Game 7 on Wednesday night, he hesitated before celebrating, and who could blame him? The entire play, if not the entire game and series, required the suspension of disbelief.
Dany Heatley to Kyle Brodziak to Niederreiter for the winner? Niederreiter sought confirmation.
“It sounded so loud I thought I might have just hit the pipe, but then I saw Brodzy jumping up and down, and I thought, ‘I guess it’s a goal,’ ” Niederreiter said Thursday. “I didn’t even think about celebrating, I was so happy.”
“Brodzy” handled that, leaping as far off the ice as he could a few times before embracing Niederreiter. Brodziak, who made a killing mistake in Game 1 and was benched after Game 2, assisted on the goal that sent Game 7 into overtime and provided the winning assist.
He was reinstated to the lineup in Game 4 primarily because Matt Cooke was suspended for seven games in Game 3 and returned on the fourth line.
If Brodziak was a long shot to play a starring role in Game 7, Heatley was a bad bet to see the ice in the series. He was scratched in seven of nine games during the playoff stretch, and the Wild went 5-1-1 in those games. He was scratched for the first two games of the playoffs.
All along, Wild coach Mike Yeo praised Heatley’s gracious handling of the benching. That might have sounded like spin doctoring if Heatley hadn’t played so well when given the chance, and if his teammates hadn’t raved about him before and after Game 7.
“I will say that watching the way Heater handled it, for him it’s got to be tough, tough for a guy who’s had the success he’s had and the career he’s had,” Brodziak said. “The way he handled it, I think that’s a good lesson for everybody on the team. The way he handled it was better than I think anyone, including myself, expected.
“I think when we look back at it, that’s a huge factor. It made it easier for me to get through what I went through, watching the way he handled it.”
“It says a lot about those guys,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “And about our team.”
The benchings of Heatley and Brodziak indicated that the Wild might not have much interest in retaining the veterans beyond this spring. Somehow, as Yeo shuffled lines, he wound up playing them next to Niederreiter, the 21-year-old the Islanders chose with the fifth pick in the 2010 draft, and who has become one of the Wild’s brightest young players.
The Heatley-Brodziak-Niederreiter line could use a nickname, but Hollywood has taken them: The Expendables, Extras, Two Men and a Baby.
The Wild traded Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round draft pick for Niederreiter last summer, adding skill and mystery to the roster. In Game 7, Niederreiter produced two blistering goals and an assists. He and his linemates combined for nine points and were a combined plus-8.
“Those are moments you dream about as a kid, to be in that situation and be the hero,” Niederreiter said.
Long before the start of each game, Niederreiter climbs into the stands and tapes his hockey stick while staring over the ice, practicing visualization.
Bryzgalov to Heatley to Brodziak to Niederreiter for a Game 7 overtime game winner?
Believing that required more than visualization. Niederreiter wasn’t sure that was real even after it happened.