COLUMBUS, Ohio – Coach Jacques Lemaire’s last game with the Minnesota Wild may also be the final one for star forward Marian Gaborik. If so, it was a sweet one.
Meanwhile, the Columbus Blue Jackets live to play again.
Gaborik had two goals and an assist to lead the Wild past Columbus 6-3 on Saturday night, ruining the Blue Jackets’ celebration of their first playoff berth and saying goodbye to the only coach they’ve ever had.
The Wild and Blue Jackets came into the league together in 2000.
Asked where he was right now in his decision about next season, Lemaire flashed a grin and said, “I’m in Columbus. Just finished the last game of the season.”
He later confirmed he would not be back.
“There comes a time when you know it’s the right time to go,” he said. “And I know this. I had a great time here. I had eight great years.”
The 63-year-old Lemaire took over the expansion franchise when it joined the NHL in 2000-2001, the same year the Blue Jackets came into the league. Lemaire has a career record of 538-415-176 in 14 seasons with Montreal, New Jersey and Minnesota, leading the Devils to the 1995 Stanley Cup title. He was 291-256-107 with the Wild, including winning records in his last six seasons.
While Lemaire and the Wild prepared for what could be a tumultuous off-season, the Blue Jackets were left to look ahead to the playoffs.
“It would have been nice to win but we’ve got to erase this,” said Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash, who had a goal a minute into the game. “It’s over. We’re on to a new season now. Whatever happened the last 82 games doesn’t matter anymore. We’ve got a fresh start on Wednesday or Thursday.”
The Blue Jackets, in the playoffs for the first time in their eight seasons, must wait to find out who they play in the first round. If St. Louis wins at Colorado on Sunday, Columbus will be the seventh seed and will play second-seeded Detroit. Should St. Louis lose, then the sixth-seeded Blue Jackets would meet third-seeded Vancouver.
Either opponent is fine with them.
“It would have been nice to win (against Minnesota). But you know what? Honestly, who cares?” Columbus defenceman Mike Commodore said. “You finish sixth, you finish seventh, you finish eighth – you don’t have home ice anyway. If you want to go far, if you want to do something in the playoffs, you have to go through the top seeds anyway.”
Kurtis Foster and Mikko Koivu each added a goal and an assist, and Marc-Andre Bergeron and Martin Skoula also scored for the Wild, eliminated from the post-season on Friday night.
Lemaire reflected on an injury-filled season in which the Wild came up just short of making the post-season.
“I was really pleased in a way, being this close to making the playoffs,” he said. “We tried a lot of players through the season. Some of them had great years, others not so good. In general, I think it was good for the whole team. The guys will learn from this.”
Gaborik, who missed most of the season following hip surgery, will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and is likely to leave the only NHL team for which he has played.
He didn’t tip his hand when it came to his plans.
“During the summer I’m going to prepare myself,” he said. “I’m really confident that I’m going to be stronger than ever next year.”
Gaborik, the Wild’s first draft pick after the franchise won a coin flip with Columbus, said the Wild gave their best this season.
“We can be proud of ourselves to finish these three games strong,” he said of the club’s first three-game winning streak since Nov. 13-18. “A little too late, but I thought we left everything out there.”
Jared Boll and Derek Dorsett also had goals for Columbus, which led 2-0 after the opening six minutes before the Wild ran off the next five goals.
Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock, who won the Stanley Cup in 1999 with Dallas, said his team would catch its breath before moving on to the playoffs.
Now he must teach a young team about what the post-season is like.
“The best way to describe (playoff hockey) is it is played with a sense of urgency on a shift-by-shift basis,” he said. “It’s played with a sense of desperation, especially in the first round until teams get worn down, where the teams that are engaged play like it’s the first and last shift of their lives. They play the whole game like that and the teams that can do that stuff and have the character to play like that and the self discipline to play like that, are very successful. It is played at a very high, high emotional pitch.”
The Blue Jackets will discover that soon enough.
Notes: Columbus D Jan Hejda, C R.J. Umberger and D Fedor Tyutin, along with Minnesota C James Sheppard and RW Antti Miettinen each played in all 82 games. … Wild RW Cal Clutterbuck’s 356 hits this season set an NHL record. The league started keeping the stat three seasons ago. … Blue Jackets D Rostislav Klesla returned after missing six games due to an abdominal injury. LWs Fredrik Modin (knee) and Kristian Huselius (concussion) are expected back for the first playoff game. … Blue Jackets C Andrew Murray suffered an undisclosed injury in the second period and didn’t return.