DENVER – Erik Johnson saved the night for Colorado with his quick feet and thinking.
The Avalanche defenceman raced from the blue line to the goal line and swatted away a puck just three inches shy of sliding in for a game-sealing, empty-net goal by Minnesota late in regulation.
His stop during a 5-4 overtime win may have been overshadowed by Paul Stastny, who tied the game with 13.4 seconds left and then scored the OT winner.
But Johnson’s play certainly wasn’t lost on the Avalanche as they take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series into Game 2 on Saturday.
“If that doesn’t happen, that hustle out of E.J., we’re not here in this moment,” Stastny said.
Almost fitting that Johnson would turn in such a big play against Minnesota.
After all, he was born in Bloomington—a suburb of the Twin Cities—and played college hockey at the University of Minnesota.
That shot he stopped on the doorstep of the goal? It was taken by fellow Gopher Erik Haula.
Trailing 4-3 with 1:32 left and goaltender Semyon Varlamov on the bench for an extra skater, Haula sent a wrist shot into the air and skidding down the ice.
“I watched the replay and the puck slowed down,” Haula said.
Just enough for Johnson, racing at full speed, to reach out at the last instant and bat it away with his stick, before crashing into the net and bumping it off the pegs.
“I didn’t think I could get it, then I turned on the afterburners and it slowed down and turned on its edge and I was able to make a last-ditch, desperation effort,” said Johnson, whose team took it easy Friday rather than go through a taxing workout. “That’s just one of the plays in the game that was fun to make and help the team win.”
With apologies to Varlamov and Ilya Bryzgalov, it was by far the biggest save of the game—the kind of play that lifts one team and demoralizes the other.
“Certainly gives us momentum, no doubt about it,” Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. “That has to hurt (Minnesota) a bit. But I’m sure they’re going to do a really good job to have their team ready.”
The late collapse is already forgotten—as much as it can be anyway. The Wild were a relaxed group in an hour-long practice at Pepsi Center on Friday. Forward Matt Cooke helped Pittsburgh win a Stanley Cup title in 2009 and knows these kinds of twists are going to happen in a series.
“The peaks and valleys have to be very shallow,” Cooke said. “They can’t be steep. That emotional roller-coaster becomes very taxing and drains a lot of energy. At the end of the day, when we started this series, I don’t think anyone thought we’d sweep the Colorado Avalanche. We lost Game 1 and that’s what it is. Now, we focus on Game 2.”
The 26-year-old Johnson had a resurgence this season under Roy, an unorthodox coach who instills confidence in his players by giving them a sense of empowerment. Johnson tied a career high with 39 points.
“E.J. is a really good hockey player,” Roy said. “He deserves a lot of credit for what’s going on with him.”
These days, the Avs are a poised bunch, even adopting the motto, “Why not us?”
The slogan started when Roy posed that question when he first came on board and was cemented in October after former Avalanche defenceman Ray Bourque addressed the team at his restaurant in Boston.
“Ray had a big speech about, ‘Why not us,'” backup goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere said. “It made sense—why not us?”
Colorado has played with a sense of calm under the passionate Roy, with nothing appearing to rattle them—even deficits late in the game. Roy pulled Varlamov with 3:01 remaining against the Wild, a move most coaches wouldn’t have made so early.
Roy has been doing that all season.
“I think sometimes you just go with a feeling,” said Roy, who said he once pulled a goalie in the second period during a Bantam game.
Wild coach Mike Yeo definitely took notice of the unique strategy.
“Us coaches, we’re all watching other people and what they do,” Yeo said. “It worked. There’s no question.
“We made a mistake and that’s why they scored a goal.”