ST. PAUL, Minn. – Nathan MacKinnon and his equally skilled Colorado linemates Gabe Landeskog and Paul Stastny were too fast for Minnesota in the first two games.
In losing twice to the Avalanche, the Wild found themselves flat-footed at the wrong times and letting their young, potent opponent dictate the pace and flow.
So how to change the direction of the series? Going home is a good place to start.
After MacKinnon, Landeskog and Stastny combined for four goals and six assists Saturday in Game 2, the Wild will now have the benefit of the last change in Game 3.
That means coach Mike Yeo can match Matt Cooke, Erik Haula and Nino Niederreiter with the MacKinnon express, a mix of grit and speed that could help the Wild stem the tide a bit.
“I’m a third-line player for a reason and I feel like that’s the best way I’m able to contribute,” Cooke said Sunday. He added: “Obviously I want that matchup.”
Here are five more things to know about the series as it shifts Monday for Game 3:
WHO’S IN WILD NET?: The Wild survived injury and illness involving their top three goalies this season, surging into the playoffs behind fourth option Ilya Bryzgalov. But Bryzgalov was pulled from Game 2 in the second period. Darcy Kuemper entered and stopped all 14 shots he faced.
Asked after practice Sunday who will get the assignment, Yeo was glib.
“Yes, we will,” the coach said, smiling.
Bryzgalov has plenty of past post-season experience with Philadelphia, Phoenix and Anaheim, but that includes plenty of goals given up, too.
“If that were what we were choose to do it would be because, first off, he made some big saves in the game. I don’t think we should forget about that. We weren’t playing our game in front of him. And this is a guy who’s played a lot of good hockey for us,” Yeo said.
Kuemper’s performances in January and February are another reason the Wild were able to make it this far. He slumped a bit in late March and then suffered a concussion. Kuemper said he knocked the rust off in practice last week and felt in full rhythm Saturday in his first action in three weeks.
“If I do get the start I’m really excited. It’s a big game for the team, and I’m going to do my part and I’m sure everyone else is going to do their part,” he said.
VARLY MEANS VICTORY: Semyon Varlamov led the NHL this season with a whopping 41 victories, but the Avalanche won Game 1 without a strong showing by their goalie. Varlamov was much better in Game 2.
“We were a little nervous in the first game. Some of us never played in the playoffs. It was pretty tough to start. When you’re nervous you sometimes try to do different things,” Varlamov said.
Coach Patrick Roy didn’t need the relief, though.
“A lot of people thought a lot about the first game but, hey, he played well enough to win,” Roy said. “I had no doubt in my mind he was going to play a really solid game. He was sharp. He made the key save. I have so much confidence in him and faith in him.”
BACK HOME: The Wild finished 26-10-5 at Xcel Energy Center this season, the seventh-best record in the league. For fans who haven’t celebrated a series victory by this team since 2003, anticipation for this first home game will be high. The shift in vocal support from one side to the other always has the potential to impact a playoff series.
“You can feel it, just the atmosphere, when you walk into that rink,” Yeo said.
OLD PALS: MacKinnon, like many NHL stars, spent two years at Minnesota prep school Shattuck St. Mary’s, which is in Faribault about 50 miles south of St. Paul. MacKinnon said several of his friends from those days will be coming to the game.
THE MATH: Teams that win the first two games in a best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoffs series have an all-time series record of 287-45, a winning percentage of .864. That doesn’t bode well for the Wild, but the Avalanche would of course be unwise to rely on the law of averages to advance them to the next round.
“We just want to remain focused,” Roy said. “Can’t make a conclusion after only two wins. Now all we’ve earned is a chance to win Game 3 tomorrow.”