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.
“I knew that I could skate with him,” Walz said. “That was never an issue. I knew I was as determined as him. Maybe other people didn’t know that. But I really felt I could do a good job against him.”
A world-class skater and puck handler, Forsberg finished the series with eight points, but Walz became a disruptive force by chasing Forsberg around the ice every shift like a shadow.
“I knew he was going to be one of those guys who likes to hang onto the puck in the offensive zone,” Walz said. “He doesn’t like to give up the puck. That’s why you saw a lot me playing hard against him and working him pretty hard in the corners.”
Roloson walked along Kellogg Boulevard from the team hotel to Xcel Energy Center the morning of the team’s first home playoff game. An endless procession of cars lined up as team officials handed out promotional giveaways along the street.
“I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is awesome,’” Roloson said.
The unexpected nature of that playoff run by a team in only its third year of existence made the Wild an easy group to root for, and the Twin Cities gobbled it up with full force. Hockey dominated conversations at work, at bars and in living rooms for weeks as the Wild kept staving off elimination.
By the end of Game 7 in Vancouver, two out of every three televisions in the market that were on were tuned to the game. The Wild crammed 19,354 fans inside the building for Game 3 against Colorado, the largest crowd ever for a hockey game in Minnesota.
“You get goose bumps just thinking about it,” Brunette said. “The ice was shaking.”
Trailing 3-1 in the series, the Wild returned to Colorado and slogged through its worst practice of the season. Players looked tired and emotionally defeated. Their season seemed all but over.
Lemaire and Risebrough summoned everyone to a conference room at the Denver Westin that evening. At a team meeting, Lemaire, Risebrough and assistant coaches Mario Tremblay and Mike Ramsey shared a simple message: Focus on one game and nothing else.
They stressed the importance of momentum in playoff hockey and how one game can change everything. They also praised the team’s effort, despite what the results indicated.
“I remember walking out of there thinking, I would not want to play against us,” center Darby Hendrickson said.
“Every guy wanted to play right then. We didn’t want to wait the night,” Roloson said.
“We were all saying, ‘Let’s head over to Pepsi Center right now. Call Colorado and see if they want to play,’” Walz said.
The Wild led 3-0 after two periods the next day and won 3-2.
Matt Johnson served the role of enforcer who protected teammates with his fists. Johnson averaged only about six minutes of ice time in the playoffs, but one act in Game 7 against Colorado inspired his team.
In the first period, Johnson dived on the ice and blocked a Derek Morris slapshot with his head.
“We were all like, ‘Whoa,’” Hendrickson said.
Unfazed, Johnson jumped up and kept playing with blood on his left cheek.
“He did whatever it took to not let that puck get through,” Roloson said. “He sent a message to the whole team.”
Johnson’s teammates leaned forward on the bench and looked at each other, amazed by what they witnessed. Guys block shots all the time, but this was different.
“You just don’t see guys diving in front of pucks with their face,” Walz said.
Just give me one chance. That’s what Brunette kept telling himself as overtime in Game 7 began.
He didn’t think that moment would come on a shift early in overtime. The Avs had the Wild hemmed in its own end so long that Brunette considered a line change as the Wild gained control of the puck. But Brunette changed his mind as the late Sergei Zholtok hustled the puck up the center of the ice.
“We kind of crisscrossed a little and I said, ‘Forget it, we’ve got to take a chance,’” Brunette said.
Zholtok dropped the puck to Brunette, who weaved through traffic and found some open ice to Patrick Roy’s right. Brunette decided not to try a wrist shot though.
“I never score from the outside so I skated in close,” he said. “I knew probably on that goalie I was not going to score from my wrist shot so I figured I had to get in on my backhand.”
Brunette held the puck for another second as he skated across the crease and stuffed in a backhander as two Avs players crashed the net. Brunette skated toward the side where he was mobbed by teammates.
That was the final goal ever scored against Roy, the Hall of Fame goalie who retired that offseason. Brunette has only his memories to mark that historical goal. In the split second after he scored, he dropped his stick in the goal and it’s never been found.
“Roy is such a competitor that he probably burned it in his fireplace,” defenseman Willie Mitchell said.
Mitchell endeared himself to fans as a hard-nosed player who put his toughness on display every time he stepped on the ice. Not even two serious injuries deterred him in that playoff run.
In Game 7 against Colorado, Mitchell used his stick to block a dump-in attempt in the third period. The puck ricocheted and hit Mitchell in the face, fracturing his right cheekbone. He missed a few shifts but returned to the ice.
“I knew right away that I had a fractured face, but I was playing a lot of minutes back then,” he said. “I just had to get back out on the ice. And to be honest, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I wouldn’t miss that for the world. You win as a team, right?”
Mitchell had surgery the following morning -- his birthday -- and returned to the locker room with a 50-stitch zipper along his face. Doctors inserted a metal plate and “popped my cheek back out,” he said.
Mitchell suffered torn ligaments in his right wrist in Game 4 of the Vancouver series after being driven into the boards by Todd Bertuzzi. Mitchell could not put on his socks or shoes without assistance after the game. The pain was so severe that he couldn’t shoot or even handle a puck during morning skate before Game 5.
“That was the most nervous hockey game I’ve played in my career because I just really thought I was going to let down my teammates and be exposed,” he said.
Mitchell caught a break that night. The puck rarely came his direction, and he wasn’t forced to battle hard along the boards.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said, “but it was one of the easiest hockey games I’ve ever played.”
Bertuzzi reveled in the role of villain and chief antagonist as the series unfolded. He seemingly loved to be hated and fed the fire whenever possible. Bertuzzi’s quip to Wild fans after Game 4 made him public enemy No. 1 for years to come.
His team leading the series 3-1, Bertuzzi spotted a group of fans inside Xcel Energy Center lining up to buy possible Game 6 tickets. Bertuzzi sneered that they shouldn’t bother because the series wasn’t coming back to Minnesota.
Bertuzzi boasted again after he scored on a breakaway with 7 1/2 minutes left in the second period of Game 7 to give Vancouver a 2-0 lead. As he skated by the Wild bench, Bertuzzi told the players to book their tee times.
Walz turned to a teammate and said, “Can you believe this guy?”
Bertuzzi should have known the Wild never quit. Three minutes after his goal, Pascal Dupuis scored off a fortunate bounce to give the Wild new life. A deflected pass behind the net popped over goalie Dan Cloutier’s head and Dupuis, standing in perfect position, batted the puck into the net.
Risebrough was sitting in the visiting general manager’s box one row above the media. He had noticed a columnist feverishly typing on deadline after Bertuzzi’s goal moments earlier. Once Dupuis scored, the writer glanced over his shoulder at Risebrough, opened his computer screen and began feverishly typing again. Risebrough started smiling.
“It was like, this is going to have a different ending,” he said.
A teammate once referred to Hendrickson as “Governor Hendrickson.” Everyone loved Hendrickson, the former Gophers standout and Mr. Hockey winner from Richfield. It seemed only fitting that the fan favorite would score the game-winning goal in Game 7 against Vancouver to send his hometown team to the conference finals.
Hendrickson took a pass from Richard Park and scorched a slapshot from the slot past Cloutier with 5:12 left in regulation.
“I think their [defensemen] were backed up so I had a lane to shoot,” Hendrickson recalled. “That one happened to go in, but Park made the play.”
Even now, Hendrickson refuses to venture outside the team focus in reflecting on his heroics.
“I walked in the locker room and the first I guy I saw was Lubomir Sekeras,” he said. “He was jumping around. It was like, ‘We did it!’”
Gaborik had an open net, room to shoot and appeared destined to break a 0-0 tie against Anaheim in Game 1 of the conference finals. Gaborik flicked a backhander toward the net, but goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere robbed him with a remarkable save that ultimately would symbolize the Wild’s scoring frustrations.
Giguere dived across the crease, put his stick along the ice and stopped Gaborik’s shot for a save that allowed the Ducks to escape with a 1-0 victory in double overtime.
“The well dried up,” Mitchell said.
Giguere posted shutouts in the first three games before allowing one goal in a 2-1 clincher in Game 4. The size of Giguere’s pads became a topic of conversation as players noted his extra advantage. The NHL adopted new rules that restricted goalie equipment that offseason. The Wild refused to pin its series loss on that, however.
“We just ran out of gas,” center Jim Dowd said. “That was a bummer.”
The Wild gathered for its year-end team meeting. Ordinarily, Risebrough only gave players jerseys they wore in their first game with the team as a keepsake. This time, he gave every player the sweater they wore in Game 7 wins at Colorado and Vancouver. The players signed each other’s jerseys before departing for the offseason.
“That was a cool moment,” Risebrough said.
Ten years later, the players still marvel at the closeness of that team and how the individual parts fit to make something far better.
“We were a bunch of misfits,” Walz said. “We all had a story, and we all kind of chuckled about it. But we came together as a team. We had so much faith and belief in our system and the way we played it and our coaching staff that we went into every game believing that we had a really good chance to win.”
Lemaire started laughing when asked about his memories of that time.
“The very first thing I believe everybody thinks about is the goal that Brunette scored,” he said. “Every time I think about or talk about that year and that run we had, everything was great, but what comes to mind is Brunette when he scored. The feeling that all the guys had and coaches had, it was unexplainable.”