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Surging Wild top Avalanche 4-3

by Rick Sadowski
DENVER – Now that the Minnesota Wild have moved back into the top eight in the Western Conference, the goal in their remaining 31 games is to gain a higher playoff seed.

"It feels good," forward Andrew Brunette said Thursday night after he scored two goals in the Wild's 4-3 win against the Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center. "But I think if you pay too much attention to it, I think it can affect you. The mentality has to be, we need to get points every night."

The Wild has been doing that on a regular basis in recent days, winning six of their past seven games overall and posting a 9-2-1 record on the road since mid-December.

Thursday's win vaulted the Wild from 10th place in the tightly-bunched West to seventh with 59 points -- they're tied with Phoenix but have played two fewer games. The Avs are going the other way -- they've four of their past five games, all at home, and fallen into 12th place, three points out of the top eight.

The victory was extra special for Brunette and goalie Jose Theodore, who stopped 38 of 41 shots, because they both spent time in Avalanche uniforms.

"I love playing here," said Brunette, who returned to the Wild as a free agent three years ago when the Avalanche didn't offer him a new contract. "I have some great memories playing here. I really enjoyed my time here."

Theodore, whose last previous win came Jan. 8 in a 4-0 shutout in Pittsburgh, spent parts of three seasons in Colorado and backstopped the Avalanche to a first-round playoff victory over Minnesota in 2008.

"I still have a lot of friends on the other team and I have good memories of this building," he said. "More important, if you look at the standings, it's a huge, huge two points that we won in regulation."

It looked like it would be a cakewalk for the Wild at the start when Kyle Brodziak and Brunette scored goals in the first 61 seconds for a 2-0 lead.

"Sometimes it's a tough lead to play in when you get them that early," Brunette said. "You'd rather get the two than two against, but we know what it's like. We played our first game after the (NHL All-Star) break (Tuesday) and we were pretty sloppy. We knew they'd get better."

The Avalanche, which hadn't played since Jan. 26 because their game Tuesday in St. Louis was postponed because of severe weather conditions, pulled within 2-1 and 3-2 on goals by Milan Hejduk. But Colorado failed to convert during a four-minute power play in the third period with the Wild's Martin Havlat serving a double-minor for high-sticking TJ Galiardi.

The Wild had a 3-2 lead at the time, and the Avalanche's best chance during the power play came from John-Michael Liles, who launched a shot that clanged off the right post.

"I think that was the turning point," Theodore said. "They had the momentum, but the PK came up big for four minutes, even though they stayed in the zone. We didn't panic. We were clearing the front of the net. If we want to win big games, those are the things we need to do."

The Wild regained its two-goal advantage at 11:26 on a goal by Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who swept a rebound into the net after Havlat intercepted goalie Craig Anderson's clearing attempt and put a shot on goal.

"Bouchie's goal was huge," Brunette said. "It came at a time when we knew they were going to come. They're a good offensive team. We've been kind of used to battling through storms, but his goal was huge."

Chris Stewart scored the Avalanche's final goal with 10.7 seconds remaining after Anderson left the ice for a sixth attacker.

"We had to throw everything at them that we had," said Hejduk, whose goal 45 seconds into the third period pulled the Avalanche within 3-2. "We had some scoring chances and battled around the net. It seems like when we get close in a game, they always score another goal and kind of put us away."

The Wild took a 3-1 lead at 16:50 of the second period on a goal by Brunette just as Avalanche defenseman Ryan O'Byrne's elbowing penalty expired. Brunette jammed a loose puck past Anderson after Mikko Koivu took a stab at it during a scramble in front.

The Avalanche had closed within 2-1 at 11:47 when Hejduk converted Kevin Porter's pass on a 2-on-1 rush shortly after Hejduk exited the penalty box after serving a hooking penalty.

But Colorado never did fully recover from its horrendous start. Brodziak scored on the first shot of the game at the 33-second mark, and Brunette shoved the puck by Anderson 28 seconds later after beating defenseman Kyle Cumiskey to it along the end boards.

The Wild nearly scored again at 1:18 when Bouchard broke in alone on Anderson, who managed to make the stop.

"It's pretty much a nightmare start," Hejduk said. "It was a terrible start and then we battled back and we outshot them the rest of the first period. The second and third, we tried hard but came up short."

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