The coronavirus pandemic continues to idle sports throughout the world, leaving fans to rely on nostalgia to get their fix. One such episode came Wednesday night with Fox Sports North re-airing the first home game in Wild history during the 2000-01 season. The game brought back a flood of hockey memories, and reminds us that only two short years later, the Wild would embark on a magical playoff run that started on the same night the Gophers men took a huge step toward back-to-back NCAA championships.
Let’s step back to the night of April 10, 2003:
It seems like yesterday, but it’s been 17 years since we were at the height of one of the golden eras in Minnesota hockey. What we wouldn’t give today for a live doubleheader like we had that Thursday night.
It started in the late afternoon, when the Gophers faced Michigan in the NCAA Frozen Four in Buffalo, N.Y. A year removed from ending their 23-year national title drought with a 4-3 overtime victory over Maine, the Gophers entered the Frozen Four on a 12-1-2 roll, winning the WCHA Final Five and outscoring their NCAA West Regional opponents by a combined 16-6. Michigan, however, would make Minnesota sweat for a victory in the national semifinals for the second consecutive year.
The Gophers trailed 1-0 after being outshot 15-5 in the first period and were behind 2-0 deep into the second before Troy Riddle poked the puck past Wolverines goalie Al Montoya with 2:15 left in the period. “We had about 10 icings and were just floating around out there,’’ Gophers freshman phenom Thomas Vanek said, describing the sluggish start at the time. “We couldn’t do anything.’’
Emboldened by Riddle’s goal, the Gophers quickly tied 2-2 it in the third, when Geno Guyer beat Montoya 1:35 into the period. Montoya and Gophers goalie Travis Weber traded big saves throughout the third, and Minnesota got a huge play when defenseman Paul Martin dived to deny a Wolverines goal with Weber out of position late in the period.
In overtime, the Gophers played their trump card – Vanek. The Austrian, who had 31 goals and 31 assists in 2002-03, pirouetted to gain space behind the net, wheeled around and swept the puck through Montoya’s skates for the winner at 8:55. It was only a prelude to Vanek’s performance in the final, when he led a third-period surge for a 5-1 win over New Hampshire.
“After the first period, I said, ‘We have to have the heart of a champion,’ ’’ Gophers coach Don Lucia told the Star Tribune after the semifinal. “I didn’t like our chances. I was surprised at how nervous we were, and we got a pretty good slap in the face.’’
As the Gophers’ 2003 NCAA semifinal was ending in Buffalo, the first playoff game in Wild history was beginning 1,500 miles to the west in Denver, where coach Jacques Lemaire’s team faced the heavily favored Colorado Avalanche. The Wild still had that new-franchise smell in its third season, and the consensus among fans was a sense of happiness just to be in the playoffs. Anything else would be gravy, and even Lemaire admitted that.
Turns out, that Wild team loved gravy, and its 4-2 win in Game 1 set a “Hey, pay attention’’ tone.
Second-period power-play goals by Filip Kuba at 5:33 and Marian Gaborik at 9:28, followed by Wes Walz’s tally 25 seconds later staked the Wild to a 3-0 lead against the Avalanche’s legendary goalie Patrick Roy. From there, Wild goalie Dwayne Roloson turned aside 39 shots to cap a memorable Minnesota hockey night.
“It’s huge, there is no doubt,’’ Lemaire said after the game, and he was prophetic. Without that Game 1 win, the Wild likely doesn’t rally from a 3-1 series deficit to stun the Avalanche in overtime in Game 7. Nor would it have come back from a similar 3-1 deficit to the Vancouver Canucks to advance to the only Western Conference final appearance in franchise history.
Since that 2003 night, we’ve seen plenty of big hockey moments by Minnesota teams – six NCAA championships by the Gophers women, three by Minnesota Duluth’s men and two by the Bulldogs women. The Wild has won a couple of playoff series but hasn’t matched that 2003 success. And the Gophers men have won eight conference titles and reached an NCAA final, though that 2003 pinnacle remains elusive. As does a repeat of that memorable Thursday night.