DENVER – Nino Niederreiter hesitated for just a moment after scoring the winning goal, not sure if what he just saw actually occurred.
It happened, all right. His Minnesota teammates suddenly skating over to mob him made the moment real.
Niederreiter scored his second goal of the game at 5:02 in overtime after Ilya Bryzgalov made a big save filling in for the injured Darcy Kuemper, leading the Wild to a 5-4 win over the Colorado Avalanche in Game 7 on Wednesday night.
The right winger was a rather unlikely star with his first two goals of the series.
“An unbelievable feeling,” said Niederreiter, whose team captured their first playoff series since 2003. “I think our heart made the difference tonight.”
Minnesota trailed 4-3 before Jared Spurgeon scored on a nifty play with 2:27 left in regulation. Spurgeon waited for a clear look at the goal, and then shot it over Semyon Varlamov’s shoulder and off the left post.
Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley had the other goals for the Wild, who will face the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in a second-round series that begins Friday. The two met last season, with the Blackhawks winning in five games.
Nick Holden, Jamie McGinn, Paul Stastny and Erik Johnson scored for the Avalanche as they returned to the post-season for the first time since 2010 and tied a franchise record with 52 wins in capturing the Central Division.
Not that it’s much consolation—not now, anyway.
“The toughest part is to not come back tomorrow and be ready for Chicago,” first-year coach Patrick Roy said. “We believe in ourselves and it’s hard to see that it’s over.
“I’m sure tomorrow is going to hurt more thinking it’s over because we still have the emotion of the game.”
Rookie Nathan MacKinnon couldn’t agree more.
“It tarnishes the year a lot,” said MacKinnon, who had two goals and eight assists in the series. “We wanted to make a run here and we had a chance twice to win the series, once in Game 6 and obviously tonight. It’s tough to describe what went on.
“We’ve got to wait until September to get things going again, which is going to be a long summer, especially watching the playoffs. It’s going to be tough.”
The Avalanche took a lead on four different occasions, only to have the Wild respond. Niederreiter won it for Minnesota on a 2-on-1 break when he sent a shot over Varlamov’s shoulder in the fourth overtime of the series.
“It’s not easy to play against a good team,” said Varlamov, who’s a finalist for the Vezina Trophy that’s given to the league’s top goaltender. “They’ve been playing well against us the whole series.”
Bryzgalov took over in net for Kuemper midway through the third. Bryzgalov started the series but was replaced by Kuemper in Game 2.
The veteran Bryzgalov stopped a shot with his left shoulder early in the overtime, paving the way for Niederreiter’s winner. It was his only save in 13:15 of action.
Now, like most of the season, the Wild have a concern at goalie, especially since coach Mike Yeo isn’t sure how badly Kuemper is hurt.
“If only we had any experience dealing with this,” Yeo jokingly said. “We’re fortunate we have good depth at that position.”
Roy’s first season on the bench for the Avalanche ended the same way his Hall of Fame goaltending career did—with a loss to the Wild in Game 7. Roy surrendered the winning overtime goal in 2003.
This one was just as agonizing.
“We had our chance—don’t kid ourselves,” Roy said. “We had our chance and they took advantage of theirs.”
Niederreiter was starting to heat up in Game 6, but couldn’t find the net. That changed on Wednesday.
“He raised the bar,” Yeo said. “Got himself in trouble now, because this is what we expect.”
Niederreiter was only happy to contribute.
“As a little kid, it’s exactly the moment you dream about,” Niederreiter said. “I’m very happy and fortunate that it happened tonight.”
NOTES: Minnesota F Matt Cooke served the fourth game of his seven-game suspension for his knee-to-knee hit on Avs D Tyson Barrie. Cooke has appeared in the most Game 7s (seven) of any Wild player. … Yeo said this is the start of a “budding rivalry” between the two Central Division foes. … Wild F Kyle Brodziak had three assists. … Colorado Fs P.A. Parenteau and Matt Duchene each had two assists. This was Duchene’s second game back after missing almost a month with a knee injury.