PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference semifinal; Game 1.
The Minnesota Wild’s stunning elimination of the Colorado Avalanche has created one certainty—there’s no chance the Vancouver Canucks will take the third-year team lightly in the Western Conference semifinals.
Looking to pull off their second straight upset, the Wild take on the Canucks at GM Place in the opener of their West semifinal series.
Minnesota sent shockwaves through the NHL by rallying from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat talented and playoff-tested Colorado 3-2 in overtime in Game 7 at Denver on Tuesday night.
Andrew Brunette scored 3:25 into overtime and Manny Fernandez stopped 43 shots as the Wild won their first playoff series by knocking off the Avalanche, winners of two Stanley Cups in the last eight years.
“To beat that kind of team … I still couldn’t believe it, I had to pinch myself,” right wing Marian Gaborik said.
Known for a steady, even mental approach instilled by veteran coach Jacques Lemaire, Minnesota didn’t give up when it fell behind 3-1. The Wild outworked the Avalanche in sweeping the last three games, including two at the raucous Pepsi Center, to advance.
Even Lemaire didn’t think it was possible, saying he would have been happy if his team won just one more game before being eliminated.
“It would have been easy for them to say, ‘Hey, this is a good team on the other side, we can’t beat them. We’ll pack it and go play golf,’ Lemaire said. “But that’s not what they did.”
Now the Wild are the Canucks’ problem. With its confidence soaring and no pressure on the young club, Minnesota will present Vancouver with a unique challenge.
Known for their trapping defensive approach, the Wild’s main focus will be shutting down Vancouver’s top line of Todd Bertuzzi, Brendan Morrison and Markus Naslund, one of the NHL’s most productive forward units during the regular season with 119 goals.
That strategy nearly worked in the opening round, as the St. Louis Blues held the line without a goal until Game 4 in building a 3-1 series lead. The trio came on, though, finishing the series with seven goals and 15 points as the Canucks stormed back to win.
The Wild will be facing a club that won’t overlook them. The Canucks should be focused from the outset Friday after losing 6-0 to the Blues in opener of that series and falling into the three-games-to-one hole.
“Minnesota is going to be a tough, tough opponent and it’s going to be the same kind of grueling task,” Bertuzzi said. “You have to be prepared to do all the little things out there.”
A crucial matchup will be in goal, where Fernandez should get the Game 1 start for the Wild after rescuing his team against the Avalanche. Fernandez took over for Dwayne Roloson after the Game 4 loss and was stellar in winning three straight.
The Canucks will need better play out of Dan Cloutier, who was good enough to get Vancouver past St. Louis but wasn’t nearly as dominant as Fernandez in the opening round.
Looking to shut down emerging Minnesota star Gaborik, Vancouver will probably match physical defenseman Ed Jovanovski against the 21-year-old forward, who struggled at times against rugged Colorado defenseman Adam Foote in the first round but still scored a team-high four goals in the series.
Game 2 will be Sunday in Vancouver.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Wild - 6th seed; beat Colorado Avalanche 4-3, quarterfinals. Canucks - 4th seed; beat St. Louis Blues 4-3, quarterfinals.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Wild - Gaborik, 4 goals; Sergei Zholtok, 6 assists; Gaborik, Zholtok and Brunette, 6 points; Filip Kuba, 10 PIM. Canucks - Naslund, 4 goals and 7 points; Brent Sopel and Daniel Sedin, 4 assists; Bertuzzi, 36 PIM.
PLAYOFF SPECIAL TEAMS: Wild - Power play: 24.1 percent (7 for 29). Penalty killing: 84.6 percent (22 for 26). Canucks - Power play: 14.9 percent (7 for 47). Penalty killing: 79.2 percent (38 for 48).
GOALTENDERS: Wild - Fernandez (3-0, 1.76 GAA); Roloson (1-3, 3.19). Canucks - Cloutier (4-3, 2.86); Alex Auld (no appearances).
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: 2-2-1. Vancouver won the first two games of the series, and Minnesota rebounded to win the next two before the teams skated to a 2-2 tie in the last meeting Jan. 28. Gaborik had five goals and four assists for the Wild, while Naslund and Bertuzzi each had five points to lead the Canucks.