The ups and downs of a playoff series can be dizzying, and that’s been especially proven during the Wild’s first-round matchup against the Colorado Avalanche.
Home wins, road losses, late tying goals, overtime defeats, dubious officiating.
Not only did all that take place in Games 1 through 5 of the Western Conference quarterfinals, all that took place in Game 5 alone.
The Wild suffered a crushing defeat Saturday night in Denver. But if the Wild doesn’t refocus and move past the disappointment, its season will abruptly end Monday during, as goalie Darcy Kuemper called it, “win or go home” Game 6.
“There aren’t a lot of teams that just cruise through and every game there’s not another challenge that you have to face,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said before coaching one of the biggest games of his career. “That’s part of the growing opportunity for our group. This is how winners are made in these moments. When you’re tested, how do you respond? When things have gone well, how do you come back?
“We’re trying to become a machine here where shift after shift, game after game we go out and play the same way regardless of who we’re playing. And that’s the challenge of this time of year and that’s where we’re trying to grow.”
This is why Yeo gathered his team at Xcel Energy Center on Sunday. Yeo knew how much the Wild put into Saturday’s 4-3 overtime loss. He also knew that frustration was high because of a couple of questionable calls, non-calls and a missed Paul Stastny offside that led to Colorado’s tying goal.
Sunday, Wild players took their coach’s cue and didn’t use the offside as an excuse.
“We already put that behind us,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “Everybody’s making mistakes. So do we.”
The Wild admitted it must play better in Monday’s must-win Game 6 if it wants to extend the series to a must-win Game 7 in Denver on Wednesday.
“It’s not easy, there’s no question,” said Yeo, whose team has won both its home games but lost late leads twice in Denver and went on to lose in overtime. “It would be very easy for us to sit here and say we deserve better, whether that’s in the game or in the series.
“But that’s a useless feeling to us right now. … We dropped back a little bit in our level [in Game 5] and we have to make sure we bring it up again [Monday].”
In front of its raucous home crowd, the Wild dominated virtually every moment of Games 3 and 4. Because of that, Yeo felt the Wild began looking too far ahead — the winner of the Wild-Avalanche series will advance to play the Chicago Blackhawks in the conference semifinals — and was given a “dose of reality” by the Avalanche in Game 5.
It’s not like the Wild played poorly. In fact, the Wild gave itself a terrific chance to put the Avalanche on the brink of elimination by scoring twice less than two minutes apart in the third period to take a 3-2 lead.
But Yeo said he felt the Wild didn’t have the same urgency that it did at home, didn’t get to the net nearly as aggressively, didn’t defend as well and didn’t play as physically.
And, after bottling up 18-year-old star Nathan MacKinnon in Games 3 and 4, the likely Calder Trophy winner got the time, space and ability to light the Wild up again, with the overtime winner and two assists.
“I think we’re frustrated with the way we played. I think we can play better,” said defenseman Ryan Suter.
The Wild returned to Minnesota last week trailing 2-0 in the series. It swept its two home games to even the series. So the Wild has had its “backs against the wall” before, Suter said, and responded the right way.
It must do that again.
“Obviously we recognize what’s on the line,” Koivu said.
So do the Avs.
“We’ve learned from those two games in Minny,” Colorado’s P.A. Parenteau said. “No one was proud of what happened or felt good after those two games. That’s a feeling we don’t want to live again.”
The Wild believed it had played well enough to win two of its three games in Denver. That’s why it was abundantly clear Sunday Yeo wants a fourth crack.
“I hope that we’re ready to bring it [Monday] because I want the opportunity to see if we can bring it in a Game 7 in their building,” Yeo said. “But in order for that to happen, we’ve got to take care of business here [Monday].
“Our fans are going to bring it, so let’s make sure we bring it. We’re still a confident group, but we also know there’s a tough task ahead.”