ST. PAUL, Minn. – Beaten up last April by the eventual NHL champions, the Minnesota Wild have some playoff experience to build on a year later.
A couple of their top offensive players, Marian Gaborik and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, were even around when they made that improbable run to the Western Conference finals in 2003.
But for all the seasoning the Wild might have nearly eight years after the franchise entered the league, they can’t quite match the Colorado Avalanche in that category.
Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote, 12 years after they won their first of two Stanley Cups together with the Avs, are ready for another run – even if they’re showing their age. Milan Hejduk is still around, too, from the 2001 championship team. Ryan Smyth, once a star in Edmonton and now a third-line wing on Colorado’s potent attack, played for the Oilers in the 2006 Cup finals.
Minnesota has plenty of grizzled faces and salt-and-pepper beards, from new enforcer Chris Simon to slap-shot specialist Brian Rolston to defenceman Sean Hill. Simon hoisted the Stanley Cup with Colorado, actually, in 1996.
Many of the most important players, though, are not that far removed from the draft that brought them to the organization in a dressing room that remains a rather youthful place. Gaborik, Bouchard, defenceman Brent Burns and centre Mikko Koivu are all first-round picks comprising the team’s core.
“Last year, I got a little bit of an experience and now I’m maybe not as nervous,” Burns said, “but it’s still totally different from the rest of the year.”
Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville downplayed the experience factor, insisting that Sakic even “gets the jitters” before post-season games begin.
The Wild, however, must be able to handle this unfamiliar role, as the Northwest Division champs, No. 3 seed and home team for this first-round series. In 2003, the Avalanche were heavy favourites and held a 3-1 lead before Minnesota’s surge started.
Xcel Energy Center is sure to be loud for Wednesday’s Game 1, so that has to be channelled properly.
“We can’t get too excited,” Koivu said. “We have to handle that in the right way and play our kind of hockey. There’s always a chance that you get overexcited and your thinking is not always there, but we have to avoid that and take it in a good way.”
Though the Wild have opened up their offence a bit over the years under famously disciplined coach Jacques Lemaire, their success is still predicated on sound defence and making opponents make mistakes. Gaborik scored a franchise-record 42 goals this season, but Lemaire’s skaters will never be known as freestylers.
“We have to be patient. Their system is based on patience,” Colorado enforcer Ian Laperriere said.
Both teams, interestingly, approach the game in much the same manner, though the Avalanche clearly have more of the big-name goal scorers and, seemingly, stronger potential to break open a game.
“They are playing well, and we’ve been playing pretty well down the stretch,” Sakic said. “For some reason, our two teams both have fast teams and match up pretty well. The games, I’m assuming, are going to be just as tight as they’ve been in the regular season.”
Minnesota suffered a big blow on Monday when defenceman Nick Schultz, probably their best pure defender who successfully hounded Forsberg, Sakic and the others in the 2003 playoffs, had an appendectomy that will certainly keep him out for the series – if not longer. Another blue-liner, Kurtis Foster, badly broke his leg in March, which leaves six healthy defenceman.
That’s not a recommended formula, especially when up against the skills of Forsberg, no matter how problematic his foot might be.
“When he’s in the zone, he gets the puck and has control and is a calm customer,” Lemaire said. “He doesn’t panic. He goes well with that team because they have a lot of guys like that.”
Petteri Nummelin, who played in only 27 games this season because of a groin problem and the depth chart, will take Schultz’s spot.
“The guys, they’ll play. They won’t go home and cry,” Lemaire said.
Andrew Brunette can vouch for that. A key member of Minnesota’s 2003 team whose 40 assists for Colorado this season ranked second behind Paul Stastny, Brunette has been reminded often this week about that memorable series four years ago and how Lemaire helped get the most out of an upstart group.
“We believed in ourselves,” Brunette said. “We knew we were in for an uphill battle, especially with the lineup they had here. But he had us thinking that we could win.”
AP Sports Writer Jon Krawczynski in St. Paul and AP freelance writer Dale Bublitz in Denver contributed to this story.