In the first 20 minutes Thursday night, the Colorado Avalanche delivered blow after blow as the fast, aggressive team tried to set a physical tone by going after the Wild’s more diminutive players.
But the Wild absorbed those thumps, got through Round 1, adjusted impressively and delivered a second-round, three-goal effort to seemingly take control of Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.
And then the third period came around.
The Wild managed the puck terribly and the Avalanche capitalized, rallying from a two-goal deficit to force overtime — the tying goal came with 13.4 seconds left — before completing the comeback, 5-4, at the Pepsi Center.
Paul Stastny, who also scored the tying goal, buried Nathan MacKinnon’s setup between Ilya Bryzgalov’s legs 7 minutes, 27 seconds into overtime. It came after the Wild several times failed to clear the zone during an extended shift in its end.
“We were in the driver’s seat going into the third period,” Wild forward Zach Parise said. “Even throughout the period, we were in a good spot. We can’t let that happen. We’ve got to lock it down there.”
Colorado rookie coach Patrick Roy so knows the importance of Game 1, he pulled goalie Semyon Varlamov with his down 4-3 with 3:01 left for an extra attacker. Teams that win Game 1 in a best-of-seven playoff series in the NHL hold an all-time series record of 417-190 (68.7 percent).
“We were defending pretty well and I think he recognized that they would have to push and they did,” coach Mike Yeo said. “Clearly it was a good move.”
The Wild came inches from scoring an empty-netter when rookie Erik Haula, who scored his first career goal in the second period, flipped a puck high out of the defensive zone.
But hustling Erik Johnson raced down and just stopped the puck from crossing the line. His momentum also knocked the net off the moorings, preventing Matt Cooke from scoring an empty-netter.
The referees must have felt Johnson’s momentum caused it to occur because they didn’t call a penalty, nor awarded a goal. Plus, the ensuing faceoff was bizarrely in the neutral zone instead of Colorado’s end.
Yeo never got an explanation as to why.
“[Referees]didn’t want to talk,” defenseman Ryan Suter.
Johnson’s save proved huge. Soon after defenseman Jared Spurgeon failed to clear the zone, the Avs tied the score when Johnson’s shot’s caromed off Bryzgalov and right to Stastny.
In overtime, the Wild had a couple of good chances, none bigger than Jason Pominville hitting the post. The Wild finally got caught on a line shift, the Avs pressured, Tyson Barrie skated away from Pominville, got the puck to Nathan MacKinnon and the 18-year-old wheeled behind the net to set up his third goal of the night.
“Playoff hockey, there are disappointments, and clearly that was one,” Yeo said.
The Wild got goals from Charlie Coyle, Suter, Haula and Kyle Brodziak. Haula and Brodziak scored their first career playoff goals 2:04 apart late in the second.
But Brodziak handed it right back when after the Wild killed off its fourth power play of the game, he coughed up the puck under no duress. Moments later, Jamie McGinn made it 4-3.
That made for frantic final 13 minutes and highlighted a game in which the Wild managed the puck poorly during several critical junctures. On the tying goal, all Spurgeon had to do was flip the puck out of the defensive zone and the Wild would carry a 1-0 lead into Saturday’s Game 2.
“That for me has got to be the focus,” Yeo said, referring to being better with the puck and pressuring more aggressively in the defensive zone.
That’s not easy against a fast, skilled Avs team. But the Wild knows it must respond.
“It’s a race to four,” veteran forward Matt Cooke said. “This is one win. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and we’re in this for the long haul.”