DENVER – The Minnesota Wild are a little weary and worn out after winning a grueling seven-game series.
There’s no time to rest, though. Not with the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks waiting on deck.
The Wild are actually looking forward to another crack at the Blackhawks, who ended their season a year ago.
Minnesota will be heading into the series with plenty of momentum after eliminating the Colorado Avalanche on Nino Niederreiter’s goal 5:02 into overtime for a 5-4 win in Game 7 on Wednesday night.
“Let’s not stop here,” said Wild coach Mike Yeo, whose team starts its series in Chicago on Friday. “Let’s keep going. We know we’ve got a tough test ahead of us with Chicago. They’ve been sitting there waiting for us. We’ll start preparing and get ready for that challenge.”
The series against the Avalanche may have been the perfect preparation for Chicago’s speed. After all, Colorado is built a lot like the Blackhawks, with fast, youthful players.
But the Wild weathered the rushes of rookie Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog.
Now, it’s on to slowing down Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who helped the Blackhawks beat the St. Louis Blues in six games.
“The challenge will be how do we respond after such a high here tonight, being able to reset and get refocused for that next task,” Yeo said.
An even more vital question: Who will be in goal?
Ilya Bryzgalov entered the game midway through the third period after starter Darcy Kuemper left with an undisclosed injury. Kuemper tried to talk his way into remaining in the game, but Yeo made the decision to take him out.
“We weren’t comfortable he was ready to go,” Yeo said. “We’ll find out more.”
A little instability at goaltender is nothing new to the Wild. They’ve gone through five goalies this season. Bryzgalov started the series against Colorado in goal, only to be relieved by Kuemper in Game 2.
“If only we had any experience dealing with this,” Yeo jokingly said. “We’re fortunate we have good depth at that position.”
Niederreiter was a rather unlikely star with his first two goals of the series. The right winger had a good Game 6 and simply carried it over.
“I think our heart made the difference tonight,” said Niederreiter, whose team captured its first playoff series since 2003.
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.
Nick Holden, Jamie McGinn, Paul Stastny and Erik Johnson scored for the Avalanche, who 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.”
“It tarnishes the year a lot,” said MacKinnon, who had two goals and eight assists in the series. “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 given to the league’s top goaltender. “They’ve been playing well against us the whole series.”
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.
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.”
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. … Minnesota is 3-0 all-time in Game 7.