DENVER – As more than a dozen teammates kick a soccer ball around in a game of hacky sack before every game, Wild defenseman Ryan Suter is off to the side playing catch with assistant equipment manager Matt Benz.
“We’re normally competing for real estate with the soccer players,” said Benz, laughing.
Every player has a pregame warm-up routine. Some run, some stretch, some play soccer.
Suter throws the football.
“Just something different to do,” Suter said before the Wild’s 5-4 victory over the Avalanche on Wednesday night. “I started in Nashville where me and [David] Legwand would toss it around. Then [Patric] Hornqvist and [Shea] Weber started in. Here, it’s just me and Benzy.”
Suter loves football and is a big — excuse him — Green Bay Packers fan. As a kid, Suter played running back in youth leagues.
“I was too embarrassed to call the plays,” Suter said. “I was too shy when I was younger to play quarterback.”
Suter, the Norris Trophy runner-up last season, averaged a league-leading 29 minutes, 24 seconds a game this past regular season. Before every game, Suter will throw with Benz before the team meeting and right afterward. They have set plays, run audibles, the works.
Benz, who used to play defensive back at Hill-Murray “because I couldn’t catch,” wears Packers gloves because “Ryan has such a great arm.”
“It’s hard for me to hang on,” Benz said. “He throws pretty hard. I’m not quite the athlete he is. It’s just a nice way to get out of the room for Ryan and do something. We just do it until he feels right. He’ll go, ‘Last one,’ and we’ll be done.”
Niederreiter on a roll
After playing his best game in weeks during Game 6, Nino Niederreiter began Wednesday’s game on the third line with Erik Haula and Dany Heatley. Niederreiter was a physical, offensive threat Monday.
“I saw him take his game to another level,” Yeo said.
On Wednesday, Niederreiter raised it another level. He scored two goals, including the overtime winner, and set up the tying goal by Jared Spurgeon late in the third period.
Heatley had a goal and two assists in the game, and Kyle Brodziak set up three goals.
Yeo began Game 7 with Zach Parise playing with Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville again, while Matt Moulson skated with Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle.
Koivo scored a goal, but Parise, who had four points in Game 6, was held off the scoresheet.
“I’m comfortable with either [Koivu or Granlund],” Parise said. “To me it doesn’t matter. We could start the game one way and second shift it could be switched. [Yeo] did a good job [in Game 6]. He had a good feel for the bench last game. You can tell when some guys are going or some guys are looking good together and he made good in-game adjustments.”
No longer idle
Left wing sparkplug Stephane Veilleux, scratched in Games 3, 4, 5 and 6, drew into Wednesday’s Game 7 in place of Justin Fontaine.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to nap [in the afternoon],” the fired-up Veilleux said after the morning skate. “It’ll be important to control the emotions in a good, positive way. Be there for my teammates in whatever situation there needs to be.”
Veilleux started the game on the fourth line with Kyle Brodziak and Cody McCormick and played to bring speed, energy, experience and “jam,” coach Mike Yeo said. Veilleux is also a penalty killer. The Wild gave up its first power-play goal (with a goalie in net) in Game 6.
Asked if he worried Veilleux might be too amped up, Yeo kidded, “He’s wound up for exhibition games, so we’ll have to keep an eye on that for sure.”
Remembering his idols
Young Avalanche star Matt Duchene grew up an Avalanche fan and said he used to pretend he was Joe Sakic or Peter Forsberg in Game 7s on his driveway.
“Those were my two favorite players growing up,” Duchene said. “To be able to play for the Avs now is a dream come true. To play in a Game 7 is that much more special. The ’01 Stanley Cup, I remember every moment of that Game 7.
“I was 10 years old sitting on the couch and when [Alex Tanguay] scored, I had a big bowl of popcorn in my lap, I jumped up and it went everywhere.”
• Third goalie John Curry served as Ilya Bryzgalov’s overtime backup after Darcy Kuemper left the game injured in the third period.