No home ice advantage? No problem. The Colorado Avalanche opened the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the same fashion they closed out the 2007-08 regular season: With a victory over the Northwest Division champion Minnesota Wild.
Avalanche captain Joe Sakic again came up huge in the clutch for Colorado, notching the eighth overtime game-winning goal of his career at 11:11 of the extra session to lead his club to a 3-2 win over the Wild on Wednesday evening.
With the Avs putting heavy pressure on Minnesota netminder Niklas Backstrom, Sakic banged home the rebound of a Ruslan Salei point shot to give Colorado a 1-0 lead in their Western Conference Quarterfinal series.
“There was everything tonight, that’s for sure. I mean, it’s going to be a tight series,” said Sakic. “We expected that coming in, and we don’t expect it to change. Our team right now, we’ve got to come out a little more prepared to start the games.
“You don’t want to give them too many power plays, because they move the puck around. They’re going to get a lot of scoring chances if you go in the box. So I think we have to be a little more disciplined and ready to start the game. We just can’t rely on Jose.”
Theodore did indeed give the Avs a chance to win by making 28 saves, including a big stop on Brent Burns during a Minnesota 2-on-1 rush in overtime.
“In the playoffs, you always want to play like it’s your last game of the season,” said Theodore. “In overtime, you’re trying to keep things the same but obviously you’re thinking a little bit more. You’re always trying to tell yourself to go back to basics. The guys in front of me came up really big. Joe’s a tough player and he proved that tonight.”
The Avs jumped onto the scoreboard first on Kurt Sauer’s second career playoff tally. With the teams playing 4-on-4 hockey, Sauer took advantage of the extra available ice. After Sauer made a feed to Sakic near Minnesota’s blue line, two Wild defenders converged on the Avalanche captain. That gave the defenseman ample opportunity to sneak into the slot and chip a Sakic pass over Backstrom’s glove hand at 1:29 of the second period.
Playoff veteran Ryan Smyth staked Colorado to a 2-0 lead before the second intermission with his 24th career postseason goal. With an Avalanche power play winding down, Jeff Finger blasted a shot from the right point toward the Minnesota goal. Smyth, stationed behind Wild defenseman Martin Skoula, was able to tip the puck past Backstrom at 13:08.
The Wild came out hard in the third and scored twice in just over six minutes. First, Mikko Koivu’s centering attempt from the right faceoff circle bounced off Finger’s skate and into the Colorado goal at 3:02. Todd Fedoruk then evened the game at 6:13 when he beat Theodore from the goalmouth with the Wild on the power play.
Soon after, Avalanche head coach Joel Quenneville called a timeout in an attempt to slow Minnesota’s momentum.
It seemed to work, as the game returned to a back-and-forth pace following the break in play.
Colorado had a golden opportunity with 2:27 remaining in regulation. Smyth was awarded a penalty shot after it was ruled that Keith Carney had gloved the puck in Backstrom’s crease following a scrum in front of the Minnesota goal.
On Smyth’s ensuing penalty shot, the forward tried a low forehand attempt, but Backstrom was able to get his right pad on the shot to set up overtime.
It didn’t take long to realize that we’re no longer dealing with regular season hockey. The physical tone was set early during a first period which saw Minnesota out-hit Colorado, 12-7.
The intensity started at the first drop of the puck and continued all the way through the game’s second whistle. Not very impressive, you say? It is when you recognize that the game’s first two whistles came over 10 minutes apart
After a stoppage of play in the opening minute, the teams played over half a period of uninterrupted, hard-nosed hockey until the second whistle – a boarding call to Andrew Brunette at 11:32.
Colorado’s first goal came from a player who, at first glance, might seem like an unlikely hero. But upon a closer look, perhaps it shouldn’t be all too surprising.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to label Kurt Sauer as a stay-at-home defenseman. In 288 career regular season games, the Minnesota native has potted a total of four goals. But this isn’t the first time Sauer has made an impact on the scoreboard in a big playoff game…against the Minnesota Wild.
Playing in his 34th career playoff game, Sauer recorded his second career playoff goal when he converted on a Joe Sakic feed 1:29 into the second period. Sauer’s only other career playoff goal came in Game Two of the 2003 Western Conference Finals against this same Minnesota Wild club. That tally, which occurred during Sauer’s rookie season with Anaheim, was a short-handed game-winner.
Ryan Smyth’s penalty shot attempt with 2:27 remaining in the third period was a rare occurrence, to say the least. It was just the 53rd penalty shot awarded in playoff history, with 17 of those attempts being successfully converted. There were two penalty shot attempts in the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
With tonight’s win, Colorado kept its lead for the most playoff victories (92) in the NHL since 1996. The Avs are 92-62 (.597) in playoff contests since moving to Denver.
Tonight’s game also marked the beginning of the Avalanche’s 27th playoff series since arriving in the Mile High City, second to only the Detroit Red Wings’ 28 series. Over that span, no other team has participated in more playoff games than the Avalanche (154).