ST. PAUL, Minn. – Twice in the first five games, the Minnesota Wild have been less than 75 seconds away from a victory on the road that has been so rare in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs this year.
Both times, the Colorado Avalanche got the tying goal late in regulation before winning in overtime, and the Wild have entered an elimination situation because of it.
The Avalanche will visit for Game 6 on Monday, bringing a 3-2 lead in the series.
“The ups and downs of the playoffs are tough,” Wild defenceman Ryan Suter said. “And it’s who can recover the fastest to get back to level.”
If the Wild are not able to ignore the what-ifs of frustration from those bitter defeats in Games 1 and 5, they’ll be in trouble against an Avalanche team that perked up on Saturday after consecutive flat performances in Games 3 and 4.
“It would be very easy for us to sit here and say we deserve better, whether that’s in the game or in the series,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said on Sunday. “But that’s a useless feeling to us right now.”
For the first time in 10 matchups, including five in the regular season prior to the playoffs, the Avalanche put more shots (35) on goal than the Wild (32) in Game 5.
By comparison, the Wild outshot the Avalanche a combined 78-34 in Games 3 and 4.
With an uptick in the play of the second line flanked by Ryan O’Reilly and P.A. Parenteau, four goals on Saturday against Wild rookie Darcy Kuemper and the possibility of centre Matt Duchene being back in the lineup on Monday, the Avalanche have some momentum.
They’ve spoken often over the past few days about needing to put more pressure on Kuemper, as if to try to intimidate the young goalie.
“I don’t think we tested him much in Minny. He had it pretty easy,” Parenteau said. “We made life a little harder on him. We have to keep doing that.”
Kuemper has stopped 78 of 83 shots in 3 1/2 games since replacing Ilya Bryzgalov in the net.
“We started to have better looks and we start to know we can beat this guy, which is very positive going there,” Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said.
Being on the edge might work in the Wild’s favour, though. They played some of their best games this season while missing key players.
After falling to 20-17-5 on New Year’s Eve, putting Yeo’s job in jeopardy, the Wild regrouped in January and February found the groove they’d been searching for. They did this while missing captain Mikko Koivu, star Zach Parise and defenceman Jared Spurgeon for 10 games or more each due to foot injuries.
“This is a great challenge. We get to come home. Our fans are going to bring it, so let’s make sure we bring it,” said Yeo, who noted a dip in his team’s urgency level from Game 4 to 5 that he said the Avalanche played with.
Even Suter said he was surprised to be so close to winning Game 5 because of the way the Wild played, worse in many areas than in Game 1.
That’s why the Wild didn’t waste energy repeating complaints about some key calls by the officials on Saturday that hurt them; most notably Paul Stastny appeared to be offside while setting up Parenteau’s tying goal with 1:14 left in regulation.
“We already put that behind us. Everybody’s making mistakes. So do we. It’s not really our job to worry about the refs. That’s the league, and I think they do a good job on that,” Koivu said.
“Us players, we just play the game and like I said, calls go back and forth. They missed some calls on us, they missed some calls on them, and I’m sure it’s the same in every series in the playoffs.”
The home teams in the Western Conference are 18-4 so far this year. The Avalanche will try to put a dent in that record for the road teams and end this series.
They’re buoyed by the possible return of Duchene, their leading scorer during the regular season with 70 points in 71 games who has been out for the past month due to a knee injury. Roy said on Sunday if Duchene plays, he’ll be on the fourth line.
“We need him. Plain and simple: We can’t replace a guy like that,” said Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon, who has an NHL playoffs-leading 10 points in five games. “He’s one of our best players, our top scorer. It makes a difference every time he plays.”