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Inability to hold leads costs Avalanche

by Rick Sadowski

DENVER -- In the end, the Minnesota Wild did to the Colorado Avalanche what had been done to them earlier in their Western Conference First Round series.

The difference Wednesday at Pepsi Center was that the Wild's 5-4 overtime win came in Game 7 to send the Avalanche home for the summer.

The Avalanche took 1-0, 2-1, 3-2 and 4-3 leads and couldn't hold any of them. Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon tied the game with 2:27 to play in the third period and Nino Niederreiter beat goalie Semyon Varlamov on a 2-on-1 rush at 5:02 of overtime.

The Avalanche pulled out overtime wins in similar fashion in Games 1 and 5, the latter to grab a 3-2 series lead.

"It's heartbreaking, but I guess you have to take a learning experience out of it," said Avalanche center Matt Duchene, who had two assists in his second game back after missing the final eight regular-season games and first five Stanley Cup Playoff games with a knee injury. "It should never have gone into overtime. I think we all feel that way. It's a terrible feeling right now."

The Avalanche took what turned out to be their final lead of the season on a goal by defenseman Erik Johnson with 8:44 to play, 31 seconds before Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper left with an undisclosed injury and was replaced by Ilya Bryzgalov.

Colorado didn't register a shot on goal against Bryzgalov for the remainder of the period.

"As soon as we saw him go in we talked about putting pressure on him," Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said. "He hadn't played in a while. We tried, but at the same time we were up one goal with five minutes left to go. You get so focused on not making any mistakes instead of keep pushing, keep forechecking, and that's the mistake we did tonight."

Duchene said the Avalanche's lack of playoff experience was a factor in sitting back too much while trying to protect their lead.

"What we have to learn, what we have to take away from this at the end of the game like that when we need to clamp it down, we have to execute better with the puck and without it we have to be sharp," he said. "You don't let your heart race as much and you have to stay in control and just get it done. It's too bad we couldn't get it done. We were right there all night. We had the lead the whole game. The one lead they had is the one that wins the game."

Spurgeon took advantage of a defensive breakdown to tie the game. He sidestepped sliding rookie Nathan Mackinnon and fired a shot from the right circle that beat Varlamov to the far side.

"Spurgeon on that goal, he had to show great patience," Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. "Mack was out of position right at the start. He showed great urgency going down and tried to block the shot and [Spurgeon] brought it back. That was a gutsy move by him and it paid off."

The Wild outshot the Avalanche 5-1 in overtime.

"We were up 4-3 and it's tough to give up a goal with a few minutes left," said Varlamov, who made 30 saves. "It's frustration. I can say I'm proud of this team. We played well this year and did great all year long."

Paul Stastny, who had a team-high five goals in the series -- including the tying and winning goals in Game 1 -- came within an inch or two of ending it for the Avalanche a few minutes before Niederreiter did for the Wild, putting a shot that deflected off Bryzgalov's shoulder.

It was the Avalanche's only shot on goal following Minnesota's goalie change.

"It nicked his shoulder," Stastny said. "It should have gone in. It's one I'll be thinking about for a while. It was back and forth all game. That's how the series was. Once overtime hit it could have gone either way again. It's frustrating, it's tough to take right now. In a couple days I'll digest it and take a look back and be proud of what we started and what we have to keep building on."

MacKinnon took the loss hard. He had 10 points (two goals, eight assists), all in the first three home games, but he wasn't able to work his magic Wednesday. He had four shots on goal and was a minus-3.

"There's going to be a lot of guys losing some sleep over plays tonight," he said. "I thought we deserved to win this series. We have to give them a lot of credit, they played a solid seven-game series. Overall we had to be better. We definitely have some regrets going into the summer. It tarnishes the year a lot.

"We made huge strides, coming from second-to-last to the top five and a 50-win season. We wanted to make a run here and we had a chance twice to win the series, once in Game 6 and obviously tonight. It's tough to describe what went on. We've got to wait until September to get things going again, which is going to be a long summer, especially watching the playoffs. It's going to be tough."

Roy expressed disappointment in the way the season ended but pride in his players, who won the Central Division with a franchise record-tying 52 wins to end a three-year playoff drought after finishing last in the West and 29th in the overall standings last season.

"It's a great season for us," he said. "It's hard to talk like this right now because everybody knows how much I love to win, but at the same time we have to know that it was a heck of a year. The toughest part is not to come back tomorrow and get ready for Chicago. That's the tough part. We believe in ourselves and it's hard to believe that it's over. I'm sure tomorrow it's going to hurt more thinking it's over.

"We always found a way to go through adversity in a great way and we got beat by a team that played very well and was well-coached and a team that wanted to win as much as we did."

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