ST. PAUL, Minn. – Keeping tabs on Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk is tough enough with a full stable of defencemen.
With Nick Schultz on the shelf after a surprise appendectomy, and Kurtis Foster lost to a broken leg near the end of the regular season, the Minnesota Wild are short-handed on the blue-line, and it cost them in Game 1 of the playoffs against Colorado.
Brent Burns, Kim Johnsson and Martin Skoula all logged major minutes in a 3-2 overtime loss on Wednesday, and it appears as though their problems are just beginning.
Skoula took a slap shot off the leg that Sakic stuffed into the net in overtime for the game winner and is listed as “possible” for Game 2 on Friday night.
“The only thing I could tell was the guys were a little tired, especially the defencemen,” Wild coach Jacques Lemaire said after practice on Thursday. “We started not to play the way we were playing the first and second. And that made a difference.”
The Wild dominated the first two periods of Game 1, outshooting the Avs 20-7, but still trailed 2-0.
They battled back to tie the game in the third, but were huffing and puffing in overtime when Sakic finished them off with his NHL-record eighth playoff overtime goal.
“Everybody’s gassed. But there’s so much on the line that you don’t really feel it until you get back in (the dressing room),” Burns said. “You’re fine. I hope we’re all in pretty good shape so we should be able to handle it.”
Burns played nearly 31 minutes, Johnsson almost 33 and Skoula a season-high 27. Lemaire played 38-year-olds Keith Carney (15 minutes) and Sean Hill (8:30) sparingly because of matchup issues against the slick-skating Avs.
The Wild recalled Erik Reitz from Houston on Thursday as an emergency option, and if Skoula can’t go for Game 2, Burns and Johnsson will get even more work.
“We demand a lot from them,” Lemaire said. “I think they did extremely well playing that amount of minutes.”
As did Petteri Nummelin, who has battled numerous injuries this season but was activated when Schultz went out. He played a season-high 21 minutes and said he had plenty left in the tank after the game.
“Everybody could,” Nummelin said. “It’s playoff time. You never get tired in the playoffs.”
Lemaire seemed to disagree. Skoula seemed to be skating in mud in the overtime and Hill’s short shift in the extra session had the Wild scrambling to get the puck out of their end.
And it wasn’t only on the back end. Lemaire elected to go with just three lines for most of the first two periods, and Mark Parrish left the game with a head injury in the second period, further depleting the team.
“I wanted to get our top players in the game as quick as we can,” Lemaire said. “I think we had a great, great start and then at a time when I felt the centres started to be a little bit tired, I put Pav in there once in a while.”
Pavol Demitra moved from wing to center to help out, and Lemaire was asked if his team could hold up in a long playoff series with just three lines.
“Maybe yes,” Lemaire said coyly. “Maybe no.”
The Avalanche seemed to have just a little more juice in crunch time. After Todd Fedoruk tied the game with a backhander past Colorado goaltender Jose Theodore, the Avs buckled down and went to work.
“Once they got it to 2-2, we started playing some of our better hockey in the game,” Sakic said.
Colorado coach Joel Quenneville went with four lines throughout, and it seemed to pay off.
The third line of Ryan Smyth, Tyler Arnason and David Jones was particularly effective, and Wild center James Sheppard was slow getting over to cover Sakic in front of the net on the game winner.
“We like the fact that we were four lines deep and played four lines deep into the overtime,” Quenneville said. “We like the options that we can decide going into games, but we also like the balance in our lineup.”
Plenty of playoff experience doesn’t hurt, either. Game 1 was Hejduk’s 100th career playoff game, while Sakic, Forsberg, Theodore and Adam Foote all have been through this before.
“Last night they came back and nobody panicked in here,” Theodore said. “I didn’t panic. That maybe factors in.”