For the first time in the history of the Minnesota Wild franchise, the team won the Northwest Division title. They edged out the Colorado Avalanche by three points and the Calgary Flames by four points. The Wild and Colorado had the same number of wins, 44, but the Wild had three more overtime losses, giving them the three-point victory since a team gets one point for losing in overtime.
Arguably, the Northwest Division was the toughest division top to bottom in the NHL as all five teams finished within 10 points of each other. The Wild was near the top or in first place most of the season. They finished the season only losing twice in regulation during the final 14 games. The Avs nearly missed the playoffs, losing four in a row in late March. But they finished 5-0-1, including a victory over the Wild in the last game of the regular season. The Wild secured the third seed in the playoffs by winning the division, and the Avs got the sixth seed, setting up a good series between these two teams in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Wild has the home-ice advantage because of their higher seed. And it looks like they will need it as this series has progressed. The Wild won the season series 5-3, but many games were shootouts or one-goal games. The teams played each other two out of the last three games of the season. So they have seen a lot of each other prior to this series. Unfortunately for the Wild, they lost defenseman Nick Schultz just before the series opener because of an emergency appendectomy. The Wild were already missing another defenseman, Kurtis Foster, due to a broken leg in March. So the Wild are thin at this important position. This could hurt them in a long series.
The Avs have the advantage on offense as well, with Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Paul Stastny, Marek Svatos and Milan Hejduk. The only big scorers the Wild have are Marian Gaborik and Brian Rolston. If Gaborik struggles, the Wild could struggle scoring goals. The goalies are pretty even, with the Wild's Nicklas Backstrom going 8-4-1 to finish the season, and the Avs' Jose Theodore finishing on a 12-4-1 run.
The Wild hold the edge on special teams which could help them win the series. The Wild have the seventh-best power-play unit in the league, and the second-best penalty-killing unit. The Avs rank 29th on the power-play, and 20th in penalty-killing. So if the Wild can excel on special teams, it could make up for thin defensive unit and their otherwise lack of offense.
The series has been as close as advertised. The first three games all went into overtime, with the Avs winning the first game and the Wild the next two. All three games also ended with a 3-2 score. All three winning goals had an element of luck to them, with Joe Sakic scoring the winner in game 1 after a fortunate bounce off a Wild defenseman's skate and Backstrom being knocked over in the crease. In game 2, Wild defenseman Keith Carney scored after a sharp-angled shot went in off the skate of an Avs' defensman. In game 3 Pierre-Marc Bouchard scored after an Avs defensman miss-played the puck that would have been icing on the Wild. Brian Rolston got the puck instead and made a good pass to Bouchard, who shot it over the shoulder of Theodore.
Game 4 was a blowout loss for the Wild, 5-1. The Wild fell behind 5-0 after two periods, in part due to a number a penalties they took. The Avs always seemed to be on the power play. The Wild lost their composure and set a team record with 13 power plays against them and 101 penalty minutes. It did appear that some of the penalties were cheap calls by the refs, which only raised the ire of the Wild players. And it also looked like the Avs should have had more penalties, but were not called. But then some of the Wild players overreacted and took dumb penalties. They cannot continue doing that if they want to win this tight series.
This loss was also on most of the Wild defensive corps, who had some bad turnovers which led to two early goals. Coach Lemaire even called out four of the defenseman: Keith Carney, Martin Skoula, Sean Hill and Petteri Nummelin. It looks like Nummelin might be nicked up, so Eric Rietz, a late season call-up, will take his place. If their poor play continues, the Avs are looking good.
Another problem trend for the Wild is that they failed to score in the first or second periods in all four games. So they are fortunate to be 2-2 after the first four games. Furthermore, Gaborik has not scored a point yet. He has 15 shots on goal through four games, but nothing to show for it.
The Wild have fired 125 shots at Theodore so far, but he has only given up nine goals. He made some key saves at key times to stifle the Wild. If he stays hot, the Wild are in trouble. The Wild has led only four minutes and 31 seconds out of a possible 264 minutes, 23 seconds of this series. They need to score first or at least score in the first period to win two more games. They can't keep waiting until the third period to start scoring. Of course, Theodore's great play has something to do with that. Holding the Wild scoreless in eight out of 12 periods is hard to overcome if his play continues. You can shoot all you want, but if you can't get it by the goalie, you can't win. Most Stanley Cup winning teams won because of stellar play from the goalie. The Wild are having a tough time getting the puck by Theodore.
Game 5 is a key game for both teams. Game 5 winners in a 2-2 series have gone on to win 158 out of 196 series, which is over 80 percent. The losing team has to win the next two games, which is tough to do.
As Game 5 unfolded, the Avs once again scored first with a power-play goal in the first period. The Wild continued to pepper shots at Theodore, and Bouchard finally scored his own power-play goal to tie the score at 1-1 after the first period. The Wild dominated the second period, but Theodore stood tall and neither team scored. So this game would come down to the third period, which seemed to favor the Wild.
But it was not to be. The Avs scored 2 goals in a minute and a half span early in the third period to get the upper hand. Brian Rolston scored with 3 second left in the game to make the final score 3-2 again. The first goal was on the power play, and the second goal was on a turnover by Wild defenseman Brent Burns, which resulted in a Paul Stastny goal. The Avs scored on two of their their shots in the period.
The Wild dominated this game, getting 40 shots on goal, while giving up only 17. But the Wild's usually reliable penalty-kill failed them, as Colorado scored on two out of three power-play chances. The Wild failed to score a power-play goal in their three chances. Once again, Marian Gaborik failed to get a point. The Avs took advantage of another bad mistake to score the game-winning goal.
This ugly win could propel the Avs to win game 6 at home on Saturday and close out the series. They only get 17 shots, but three go in. They give up 40 shots, and only two go in. They were lucky to win this game. If Theodore doesn't play out of his mind, the Wild would be up 3-2 and have the momentum for game 6. But a hot goalie can take a team a long way in hockey. Game 5 just proved it.