The Avalanche pulled out a valuable victory over the Wild in a crowded Western Conference race that all but promises to come down to the end.
Milan Hejduk scored the shootout winner, lifting goalie Peter Budaj and Colorado to a third straight victory – 2-1 over Minnesota on Saturday night.
“These points are huge with this division so tight,” said Hejduk, who went high to beat goalie Manny Fernandez and give the Avalanche their third win over the Wild in four meetings. The last two have come by shootout, and Colorado has earned seven points compared to four for Minnesota.
They play four more times. The Wild, Avalanche and Calgary Flames are currently in a three-team pack fighting for the final two playoff spots.
“Every time we play them, it’s tight games,” said Minnesota coach Jacques Lemaire, whose team dropped its second straight at home and will start a four-game road trip next week. The Wild are 0-9-1 in their last 10 games away from home, where they are an NHL-best 17-5-1.
That’s a troubling trend they must reverse in the next three months to qualify for the post-season, but they have Marian Gaborik back to help them. He returned after missing 34 games because of a groin injury, giving Minnesota some momentum despite the defeat.
The 24-year-old player, who signed a three-year, US$19 million contract this summer, hasn’t fulfilled his promise yet as Minnesota’s franchise star – largely because of his health. A 17-game absence last season was related to a groin problem.
Playing mostly on the Wild’s fourth line, Gaborik showed no loss of speed – but his shot was a little off. He had a team-high five shots in only 12 minutes, 58 seconds on the ice. Lemaire guessed he would be back to normal after two or three more games.
“My legs feel fine, but there’s some rust in my hands,” said Gaborik, whose failure to backcheck was one factor in Colorado rookie Kyle Cumiskey’s second-period goal, the first of his career off a perfect behind-the-net feed from former Minnesota forward Andrew Brunette.
“It was great to jump in and play again,” Gaborik said. “It’s been a long time.”
The first half of this season for the Wild has been wildly inconsistent. In addition to needing better play on the road, where they are 4-14-1, they must find a way to finish off their foes better in the final period. Fifteen of their 42 games have gone to overtime.
The Avs improved their shootout record to 3-0, giving them hope they have stopped their post-regulation problems. They were 6-9 in overtime last season and 3-6 in shootouts, then lost their first two games this season in overtime.
“This year is a different story for us,” said Hejduk, who assisted on Cumiskey’s goal and has a point in three straight games after getting points in only three games in December.
Mikko Koivu scored the Wild’s only goal in regulation and had another score waved off by Pavol Demitra’s goalie interference penalty. Koivu, who has three shootout winners this season, had his shot blocked by Budaj. Two rounds later, Pierre-Marc Bouchard hit the post.
“It’s a big win with how tight the conference is,” Budaj said. “But we can’t get too excited just because we’ve won a few in a row.”
Lemaire was pleased by his team’s play and confident it could continue on the road. He’ll have to decide where to play Gaborik, a choice made difficult by the recent success of Koivu with linemates Demitra and Mark Parrish. But the coach, who has frequently been hard on his star, was happy with Gaborik’s return.
“I liked the way he worked,” Lemaire said.
Notes: Avalanche D Jordan Leopold, a college star at Minnesota, has played only five games this season following off-season hernia surgery. After returning in early December, Leopold hurt his groin and is out indefinitely. … Brunette has 10 points in his last seven games. … Koivu and Parrish each have points in their last four games.