DENVER – Erik Haula’s clearing shot was headed for the empty net, all but securing the Minnesota Wild’s Game 1 win Thursday night.
As the puck slid down the ice, the crowd was holding its breath while defenseman Erik Johnson was racing after it. Just before it crossed the goal line Johnson dove and knocked it away with 1:32 left in regulation, keeping the Colorado Avalanche within a goal.
“It’s three inches from losing the game,” center Paul Stastny said. “If that doesn’t happen, that hustle out of EJ, we’re not here in this moment.”
“This moment” was basking in the glow of another thrilling win by the won’t-quit Avalanche. Given another chance by Johnson, Stastny sent the game into overtime with 13.4 seconds left and then scored 7:27 into the extra period to give Colorado a 5-4 win and a 1-0 series lead.
Johnson’s hustle epitomized what the Avalanche has been all season – relentless and confident.
“That was certainly a key moment,” coach Patrick Roy said of Johnson. “There are a lot of key moments in the game. This one was probably one.”
It was a winning moment in a game full of them for the Avalanche. Rookie Nathan MacKinnon showed poise way beyond his years with three assists, two of which came on Stastny’s equalizer and winner.
Ryan O’Reilly had a whipsaw slapshot that tied the game at 2-2, and then kick started Colorado’s comeback from a 4-2 deficit by stealing the puck in the Minnesota end and assisting on Jamie McGinn’s goal with 12:47 left that made it 4-3.
One of the brashest moves was Roy’s decision to pull goaltender Semyon Varlamov with 3:01 remaining. Traditional hockey strategy dictates that happens in the final 90 seconds – two minutes at most – but Roy ignores that philosophy and has all year. He goes by his gut and his gut told him Thursday pull Varlamov early.
“It shows Patty is going to coach the same way,” Stastny said. “Yeah, maybe the games are bigger, they’re more important, but he’s never going to sit back. He’s going to keep going, be aggressive. He showed that today and obviously it was the right move. It was a long three-minute shift, but it was worth it in the end.”
Roy nearly pulled Varlamov with four minutes left but held off.
His strategy is not a gimmick. He said the team has practiced playing 6-on-5 for a month, and the comfort in that situation showed Thursday.
“You always hope that eventually it pays off. You don’t know when, but when it happens you’re pretty happy,” Roy said. “Tonight could be a key part in our playoff run. You’re talking in the playoffs to get some momentum, and I think this win for us should bring a lot of momentum to our team.”
A lot was made of the Avalanche’s youth but that was dispelled early when it took a 1-0 lead on Gabriel Landeskog’s goal at 13:14 of the first period.
Moments before, the Colorado captain delivered a big hit on Minnesota defenseman Jonas Brodin that got the crowd to its feet.
“It kind of gets that monkey off your back, especially in Game 1,” Landeskog said. “You want to come out and be that presence out there. For me, that’s playing physical and scoring a goal.”
Now the Avalanche will try to ride that momentum into Saturday’s Game 2. The Avs were on the ropes in Game 1 but found a way to win. Now they’re armed with more confidence and a belief that they can overcome any obstacle, not even a puck racing toward an empty net.
“Originally, I didn’t think it was going to go in. I didn’t think it had enough speed,” Johnson said. “When it landed it picked up speed. I kind of slowed down a little bit, and I just got there at the end before it went over the goal line.
“What a comeback. That’s the kind of stuff you dream about when you’re a kid, winning playoff games like that.”