Wild’s season comes down to a winner-take-all Game 7
By Chad Graff
St. Paul Pioneer Press
DENVER — Only a few minutes had passed after a crushing overtime loss in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series against the Colorado Avalanche, but Wild coach Mike Yeo already was looking ahead.
The Wild still had to win Game 6 at the Xcel Energy Center to force tonight’s do-or-die series finale at Pepsi Center, but after his team coughed up a 2-1 lead in the game’s final 1:14 and lost in overtime Saturday, Yeo decided to cut straight to the finale.
“We have a lot of guys who haven’t played in a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoffs,” Yeo told his team. “And there’s not many things that are better than that. So that’s our goal.”
With their second elimination game in three days, the Wild have a chance to bounce the Central Division champions and advance to the second round of the postseason for the first time since 2003 — when they bounced the heavily favored Avs on the way to the Western Conference final.
That game, won on a goal by current Wild assistant Andrew Brunette, holds a special place in the hearts of Wild fans, as does their Game 7 victory over the Vancouver Canucks in the second round that year.
Now the 2013-14 club has a chance to join that elite club by winning a Game 7.
“It’s the best, and it’s also the worst,” Yeo said with a laugh. “And I said that only kidding. Every moment is so meaningful in the game. And I really do mean it’s the best because you’ve got so much on the line, you’ve got the players laying it all out there, you’ve got the passion and energy of the building and the fans and there’s just so much at stake.”
At stake for the Wild is a major step forward for the organization. After a meek, five-game loss to eventual champion Chicago in the first round last year, the team has made it clear it wants to win a playoff series this season.
Today is the Wild’s first — and only — chance to clinch this series. If they do, they’ll get another shot at the Blackhawks in the second round.
First, Game 7.
“You have to experience it, and that’s good,” Yeo said. “We’ve got a lot of young players; we’ve got a lot of guys who we’re trying to develop and grow. We want to have years of success, not a year of success. So to get that experience, to go through these things, is an important time for our organization.
“We faced a (virtual) Game 7 last game, too. That’s one thing for our players to draw upon.”
One difference: This game is at Pepsi Center, where the Wild lost third-period leads after the Avs pulled goaltender Semyon Varlamov and went down in overtime in Games 1 and 5. Back on their home ice Monday, the Wild responded by netting two empty-net goals to force Game 7.
“I think these can go a long way, being a part of these games and being able to win these games,” Game 6 hero Zach Parise said. “Everyone talks about how young a team they have, but we’re a relatively young team, too, with a lot of guys that don’t have a lot of playoff experience.”
Parise, who led New Jersey to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011-12, is one of only four Wild players expected to play today to have participated in a Game 7. Jason Pominville, Cody McCormick and Dany Heatley have competed in one each.
The Wild’s task tonight is to break the mold. The home team has won all six games in this series.
“This is a really important game — really important for us to get here and really important for us to go through that game,” Parise said. “It’s a really good challenge and one we’re excited about.”
The Wild have played their best hockey this season when their backs have been against the wall. It happened in early January after they lost six straight games to close December. And it happened in late March, when they finished the regular season with a 6-1-1 run against some of the league’s top teams after dropping 9 of 12 games.
This time, they have a chance to close out a playoff series.
“We’re very excited for our club and for that challenge,” captain Mikko Koivu said.
Added Yeo: “We’ve gone through a lot of hard things to get to this moment, and we’re going to face a lot more (Wednesday) night. But I know that every guy in our locker room is excited about that.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.