ST. PAUL, Minn. – If this is Joe Sakic’s final post-season, he sure started it with a flourish.
Adding another line to his remarkable resume, Colorado’s 38-year-old captain tipped in a rebound for the winner 11:11 into overtime and sent the Avalanche past the Minnesota Wild 3-2 on Wednesday night in the first game of this first-round series.
“It was right there on my backhand,” said Sakic, who also assisted on Kurt Sauer’s second-period goal. “Just being in the right place at the right time, I guess.”
By being there for the ricochet of Ruslan Salei’s shot from the point and nudging the puck past Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom, Sakic notched his eighth career overtime playoff goal.
That’s an NHL record.
“Joe’s a scorer. He’s a great player. He knows his way around the rink as good as anybody,” Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville said. “Sometimes you get the fortunate bounce, but you know where to go to get those fortunate bounces.”
Game 2 is at Minnesota on Friday. The Wild didn’t sound deflated, even if they wasted a 20-7 edge in shots over the first period and still found themselves trailing 2-0.
“The intensity was at its best. Players were at their best,” coach Jacques Lemaire said. “That’s the playoffs – you get a break here and there and you turn out to be in great shape.”
Goals by Mikko Koivu and Todd Fedoruk forged a tie just 6:13 into the final frame, but a second-period head injury to Mark Parrish left Minnesota missing some depth up front. An appendectomy for shutdown blue-liner Nick Schultz earlier this week forced lesser defenceman into significant minutes.
Lemaire said he thought his team might have been a bit tired in extra time. He blamed rookie centre James Sheppard for leaving the net on the fateful play.
But Sakic is hard to stop in situations like this, even in a season when he missed 38 games because of a hernia and saw his production drop off a bit. He’s been playing on one-year contracts and has not decided whether to return next fall.
“This guy has got nothing but dedication and heart towards winning,” teammate Ryan Smyth said. “He knows what it takes. … For how young he is, he’s still got it.”
Colorado welcomed Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote back in February to reunite that outstanding core with Sakic for maybe their last crack together at another title. The Avalanche got strong goaltending by Jose Theodore down the stretch and entered the playoffs poised, experienced and perhaps even the favourite in this matchup.
The division-champion Wild won the season series 5-2-1, but they miss Schultz as a check against that potent, slick-passing Colorado attack.
They won’t be able to advance as they did four years ago against the Avs, rallying from a 3-1 deficit and stunning the NHL by winning the first round on their way to the Western Conference finals, if they let this savvy opponent get all the little breaks.
“They nearly get a goal every time you make a mistake,” Lemaire said, adding: “You really have to be focused on every detail.”
The Avs had three chances to win it near the end of regulation. David Jones kicked in a loose puck, which was waved off. Then, Milan Hejduk’s deflection of Chris Finger’s slap shot clanked off the post.
Finally, Smyth was awarded a penalty shot with 2:27 remaining following a scrum around the crease, but Backstrom smothered his right-then-left attempt to sneak the puck around his stick.
“I’ll have to take Joe out for dinner, I guess,” Smyth said. “He saved me – bailed me out.”
The Avs made their early chances count.
Sauer, who scored only once this season, got the first goal for Colorado. Smyth followed with a power-play deflection, and the Avs were up 2-0 in the second period with only seven shots on net at that point.
Theodore, who had a strong comeback season after losing his job last year to Peter Budaj, was unbreakable until the final period.
Koivu’s shot from beyond the circle glanced off Finger’s skate, with Brian Rolston parked in front of him, and ricocheted in.
Minutes later, it was all tied up.
With Fedoruk playing the muscle man role on a power play – the Wild were 2-for-27 in last year’s first-round loss to Anaheim and 0-for-4 on the night until this – Nummelin made a short pass in front of the net. Fedoruk snagged it, pivoted and with some deft stick work sent the puck past a sprawling Theodore.
“We know we can play these guys,” Koivu said. “We know it’s going to be tight all the way. That’s how it’s going to be. It’s going to be a fight. Every game, every shift. We just couldn’t finish the way we wanted.”
Notes: Backstrom’s save of Smyth’s penalty shot was noteworthy. He’s 4-11 with a .386 save percentage in career shootouts. … In 23 career games at Minnesota, Sakic has 20 points – more than any other visiting player. … Wes Walz, a valuable centre on the Wild’s 2003 playoff team who retired abruptly less than two months into this season, lifted his arms to cajole the crowd into yelling louder before leading Minnesota’s traditional “Let’s Play Hockey” chant before the opening faceoff.