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Wild face crossroads as they prepare for Game 7

by Dan Rosen

DENVER -- The Minnesota Wild have been climbing the ladder to contender status since Zach Parise and Ryan Suter changed the expectations around the team and the perception of the franchise by signing matching 13-year, $98 million contracts two summers ago.

The next step is the Wild's toughest yet.

The result of Game 7 of the Western Conference First Round series against the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center on Wednesday (9:30 p.m. ET; CNBC, TSN2, RDS, FS-N, ALT) will either raise the expectations around the Wild even higher or potentially alter the perception of the team going into the offseason.

"They can go a long way, being a part of these games and being able to win these games," Parise said. "Everyone talks about how young of a team [the Avalanche] have, and we're a relatively young team too with a lot of guys who don't have a lot of playoff experience. So, when you can play in a game like this it will help us in the long run. You have to win these games on the road."

Parise is one of four Wild players expected to be in the lineup with Game 7 experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He played in two Game 7s with the New Jersey Devils, in 2009 and 2012.

Dany Heatley played in a Game 7 with the San Jose Sharks in 2011. Jason Pominville was in a Game 7 with the Buffalo Sabres in 2006. Cody McCormick played and lost a Game 7 with the Sabres in 2011.

The Avalanche have two players with Game 7 experience, but forward Maxime Talbot has played in four of them, including Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, and goalie Semyon Varlamov has appeared in three.

"You have to experience it, and good," said Wild coach Mike Yeo, who has coached and played in several Game 7s, including three as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins. "We've got a lot of young players. We've got a lot of guys we're trying to develop and grow. We want to have years of success, not a year of success. To get that experience, to go through these things, it's an important time for our organization."

The Wild have been through growing experiences already.

Take, for instance, last season, when they arrived in Denver for the last game of the season and had to win to clinch a playoff berth.

The Wild won 3-1. Parise scored the first goal.

Minnesota faced a number of tests during the regular season; perhaps the biggest came in late December, when it lost six in a row in regulation to close 2013. It was thought then that Yeo's job was in jeopardy, but the Wild rang in the new year with four straight wins and a 9-4-1 record in January.

The Wild slumped again in late March, winning one of five games (1-3-1) before ripping off a 6-0-1 streak to clinch a Stanley Cup Playoff berth with three games to spare.

Then came this first-round series and losses in Games 1 and 2. The Wild responded by winning three of the next four games, including a win-or-go-home Game 6 on Monday.

"Now this is it for both teams. We recognize that," captain Mikko Koivu said. "We also recognize that we need to be better on the road to get this game. We did some good things, but we realize we need to be a better hockey team on the road to win this series."

The Wild were close to victory in Games 1 and 5 at Pepsi Center, but Colorado coach Patrick Roy pulled Varlamov early for an extra skater and the Avalanche scored the tying goal late in the third period each time before winning in overtime.

Minnesota was possibly 88 seconds away from having this series wrapped up in five games.

"After Game 4 we said that if we're going to move on, we have to win a game in this building," Yeo said. "So obviously when you lose [Game 5] you put yourselves in a more difficult position, but we still have that opportunity."

They do because of how they played in Game 6. Yeo particularly liked the way the veteran star players stepped up.

Parise had two goals, including the game-winner, and four points. Koivu and Suter had assists on each of Parise's goals. Pominville had an assist on Mikael Granlund's goal. Heatley was physical (four hits) and noticeable on most of his shifts. The Wild scored two empty-net goals.

"I thought all our leaders were great," Yeo said. "That's part of why I put Mikko and Zach together. I gave them one shift at the end of the second period and they spent probably about 40 seconds in the offensive zone. That's the kind of shift that can really build momentum for your group."

Yeo also liked the way the young guys came to play, particularly forward Nino Niederreiter.

"I saw him take his game to another level," Yeo said. "We need a guy like that to play big in [Game 7]."

The question is can he, or better yet, can all the Wild players deliver when the stakes are just as high for the Avalanche?

Parise and Suter changed the expectations and perception of the Wild two summers ago. Now they  get to see how far along they are in the progression.

"Winners, for me, they recognize how hard it is, but at some point there comes a time when you really start to appreciate that, take pride in that, doing all those little hard things," Yeo said. "We've gone through a lot of hard things to get to this moment and we're going to face a lot more [Wednesday] night, but I know that every guy in our locker room is excited about it now."


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