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Five reasons why the Wild advanced

by Jon Lane

Game 7 of the Minnesota Wild's Western Conference First Round series against the Colorado Avalanche was a microcosm of their regular season.

The Wild's message was put into focus during a seesaw battle Wednesday in Denver: You knock us down, we get back up. Again and again.

In late December, the Wild lost six straight games before bouncing back with a 7-2-0 run and finished the season 6-1-1 to clinch the first wild-card spot in the West.

At the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Avalanche, the Central Division champions, they couldn't win at Pepsi Center, where in two games they allowed the tying goals in the final minutes that had them in a 3-2 deficit in the best-of-7 series.

In Game 7, four times the Wild trailed. Four times they came back. The fourth was Nino Niederreiter's goal 5:02 into overtime to give Minnesota a 5-4 victory and a ticket to the Western Conference Second Round for the first time since 2003.

Resilience has been the Wild's calling card through 89 games. It's how they found a way in Game 7 and into the second round against the Chicago Blackhawks.

"This is definitely something that we can say, 'Let's keep building off of this,'" Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "For me a big part of that is also saying, 'Let's not stop here, let's keep going.'"

Here are five reasons why the Wild's crazy ride will continue:

1. Forward depth

The Wild made a 13-year, $98 million investment in Zach Parise in 2012, one that's paid dividends and reached another level in the first round. Parise's 10 points (three goals, seven assists) is tied for the NHL postseason lead. Starting with his goal 49 seconds into Game 6 and ending with his fourth playoff game-winner with 6:29 left in regulation, Parise set a Wild playoff single-game record with four points (two goals, two assists), the most in an elimination game. He also set a career high with a six-game playoff point streak, behind only Marian Gaborik's eight for the longest in franchise history.

Minnesota's production at forward didn't end with Parise. Ten Wild forwards scored goals and seven had at least five points.

2. Ryan Suter

Suter also received 13 years and $98 million, and was a major factor behind the Wild advancing. He assisted on each of Parise's two goals in Game 6, including the game-winner late in the third period, and had a four-point performance for the first time in 72 career playoff games.

Suter averaged more than 29 minutes a game against Colorado's top players and is third in the postseason in total ice time. His four points in the series tied with the Avalanche's Nick Holden for tops among defensemen, and his biggest play came in overtime of Game 7, when he dropped to his belly to stop Gabriel Landeskog's 2-on-1 pass to Paul Stastny alone in the slot. A short time later, Niederreiter converted the game-winner.

3. Goaltending

An injury to starter Darcy Kuemper sustained in Game 7 has this position in flux entering the second round, but there's no overstating Kuemper's contributions against the Avalanche. Since coming in relief of Ilya Bryzgalov 32 minutes into Game 2, Kuemper won three of four games and got the Wild into a tie game in the third period of Game 7 before he was pulled due to the injury.

Kuemper's 2.03 goals-against average is among the League leaders in the playoffs. His 1-0 overtime win in Game 3 made him the first Wild goalie to have a shutout and the first to win 1-0 post-regulation since Normie Smith of the Detroit Red Wings in 1936. His postseason shutout streak of 124:11 also set a new franchise postseason record.

Bryzgalov took over for Kuemper midway through the third period of Game 7 and made one save in 13:15 of work before the Wild won in overtime.

4. Unlikely heroes

Keumper and Bryzgalov weren't on the Wild's roster at the start of the season, but teamed for all four wins in the first round. Given a second chance with Minnesota after a trade from the New York Islanders, Niederreiter, the No. 5 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, shined in Game 7 when he had two goals on five shots, an assist on Jared Spurgeon's game-tying goal with 2:27 left in regulation and the game-winner in overtime.

"I said this before, he raised the bar," Yeo said. "He's got himself in trouble now because this is what we expect."

Veteran Dany Heatley was scratched in Games 1 and 2, but the two-time 50-goal scorer had five points (one goal, four assists) in the subsequent five games that included two assists in Game 5 and a goal and two assists in Game 7 that gave him 16 career multipoint playoff games. Kyle Brodziak, scratched in Game 3, was moved up to the third line with Niederreiter and Heatley in Game 7 and had three assists.

5. Home ice

The Wild won all three of their first-round games at Xcel Energy Center, the first time they had more than one home win in a single playoff series in team history. Yeo took advantage of having the last change by getting the matchups he wanted, which was a factor in the Wild's ability to contain Nathan MacKinnon on their ice. MacKinnon, a Calder Trophy finalist, had 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in the series, but none in Minnesota, where he was a minus-3 in the Wild's 5-2 win in Game 6.

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