Andrew Brunette’s stunned celebration remains frozen in time inside the Minnesota Wild weight room. Visitors can’t miss it.
The most memorable moment in team history is painted on a wall as a constant reminder of the gloriously unpredictable playoff run that captured the hearts of fans who embraced a roster littered with castoffs and journeymen just trying to prove they belonged in the NHL.
One snapshot still serves as a symbol of that 37-day march to the Western Conference finals in 2003: Brunette’s reaction after scoring an overtime goal against the star-studded Colorado Avalanche in Game 7 of the Wild’s first ever playoff series.
Arms raised and mouth opened wide, Brunette whirled and skated toward teammates with an expression that said, Can you believe that just happened?
“I’ll be in different places throughout the country and if I meet a Minnesota person, they all tell you exactly what they were doing or where they were,” Brunette said. “Everybody has a memory of that. When you’re playing it doesn’t really sink in. But once I stopped playing, you understand the relevance and importance.”
That team made playoff history in only its third season as a franchise. The Wild became the first team in NHL history to overcome two 3-1 series deficits, first against Colorado and then Vancouver.
The Wild won six consecutive elimination games (four on the road), which is even more remarkable considering the team had not won three consecutive games in its existence prior to that postseason.
The ride ended with a four-game sweep by Anaheim in the conference finals, but even now, 10 years later, the memories and sense of accomplishment remain vivid for those involved.
“You look at these guys and you’re so proud of them for what they achieved,” retired coach Jacques Lemaire said. “That’s all that you wanted. Nothing else.”
The Wild had a savant coach in Lemaire, a sound defensive system, a talented goal scorer in Marion Gaborik and a pair of No. 1 goalies in Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez. Still, Vegas listed the Wild at 50-to-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup as the No. 6 seed.
General manager Doug Risebrough and Lemaire set reasonable expectations in preparing for the first series. They wanted the players to relax, play loose and just enjoy the experience.
“At that time, we were probably playing our best hockey,” Lemaire said. “The guys, you could tell the confidence they had in teamwork, the type of game we were playing. They believed we had a chance.”
And yet Risebrough cringed as he watched practice on the eve of Game 1 in Colorado.
“The players were so nervous, they couldn’t pass the puck, they weren’t skating,” he said. “It was a mess. Here you’re trying to find ways to make them feel confident going into the playoffs against a team with superstars and the more we practiced, the worse it got.”
Wes Walz stood on the ice for the national anthem before Game 1. He scanned the Avs lineup at the other end and saw Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk, Alex Tanguay, Patrick Roy, Rob Blake and Adam Foote.
“I said, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Walz said. “I remember thinking to myself, How are we going to beat these guys?”
How? By sticking to the Avs’ superstars like Super Glue. Walz’s stifling defense on Forsberg served as the template.