The Minnesota Wild knew they were in the playoffs before they took the ice at Xcel Energy Center Sunday evening to face the Colorado Avalanche. What they didn't know was how hard the rest of the evening was going to be, after the first period.
The Wild finally won when Marian Gaborik drove home a return pass from Pavol Demitra 3:10 into overtime, past prone Colorado goaltender Jose Theodore to secure a 3-2 victory and open a 4 point lead on their nearest competitor for the Northwest Division title, the Calgary Flames, who play Vancouver later tonight.
Gaborik's game winner was his 40th of the season, the first time a Wild player has reached that plateau in a single NHL campaign. The Wild victory was coach Jacques Lemaire's 499th as an NHL head coach; he'll get his first crack at 500 Thursday night at home vs. Calgary.
The first period was all Wild as Brian Rolston wristed a rebound of a Kim Johnsson shot past Theodore near the 5 minute mark. The goal was Rolston's 30th of the season, his third season with 30 + goals in his career. Three minutes later, Gaborik scored in the waning seconds of a 5-on-3 advantage (the first penalty had just ended) his 39th of the season to make it 2-0 Wild. This sent Colorado coach Joel Quenneville into a narly, blinding rage, his diminshing hair on his head nicely backdropped against a sea of angry red coming from within. Colorado was called for unsportsmanlike conduct ('abuse of officials' is the technical term) but the Wild did not capitalize on that opportunity.
The second period could not have been any different than the first. The Wild only got off 3 shots on goal in the second, as another 3rd liner -- Colorado's Jeff Finger -- gave his namesake to the Wild with a goal and an assist (Wojtek Wolski, 2 assists) as the Avs clawed back into the game at 2 each after two periods.
The third period was back and forth, with both sides needing metallurgy to stay in the game, as both Theodore and Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom had pucks go off posts at least twice each. The referees put away the whistle in the final stanza, as there were numerous plays for which both sides could have summarily marched to the penalty box. However, the play continued up and down as the period ended.
The overtime was no different, with both sides having chances as the clock ticked away. Gaborik came away with the puck at center near the Wild bench, passed it to Demitra who was on the left side, then they went in two-on-one against Jeff Finger, who shaded towards Demitra as he passed it to Gaborik, who put the game winner away and sent the crowd home happy to watch the Canucks and Flames battle it out on NHL Network tonight (in the US).
Chicken Little says: We may be in the playoffs, but we still could wind up in 8th place. Gotta keep working and playing 60-minute games or they're screwed; they could still wind up playing Detroit if they're not careful.
Pollyanna says: Gaborik scored his 40th goal tonight and it was the game winner in overtime. The team is playing a lot better now than when it was when we all were in Cow-gary last weekend!
Bottom Line: Wild need to win every game to put maximum pressure on both Calgary and Colorado to win the Northwest Divison. Any failure by either team will put the Wild in a better playoff position. And, with the five Northwest Division teams all playing each other the rest of the way, that means the Wild's fate is in their own hands.
Stud: Easy to say Gaborik; but I'll go with Backstrom, who made a handful of saves that I still don't believe he'd say he made. He was dazzling especially against Joe Sakic, Paul Stasny and Andrew Brunette, who's made a career of camping out in front of goaltenders.
Dud: Keith Carney did his 'Little Boy Lost' imitation again tonight. He wasn't asked to play in the OT, nor in a good part of the 3rd period. To top it off, he was responsible for Ruslan Salei, who scored the second Colorado goal.
Next Game: Wild: Thursday, April 3 vs. Calgary, 7:00 PM CDT (KSTC-45, Rogers SportsNet West)