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Wild win Game 7 in OT, will face Blackhawks

by Dan Rosen

DENVER -- Nino Niederreiter helped the Minnesota Wild snap an 11-year drought and earn another crack at the Chicago Blackhawks.

Niederreiter scored his second goal of the game 5:02 into overtime Wednesday to give the Wild a 5-4 come-from-behind victory against the Colorado Avalanche in Game 7 of the Western Conference First Round series at Pepsi Center.

"That's when you have to show up, the big stage," said Niederreiter, who also had an assist on Jared Spurgeon's game-tying goal late in regulation. "I'm very lucky to be able to do it."

The Wild erased four one-goal deficits to force overtime before winning their first Stanley Cup Playoff series since 2003, when they also beat the Avalanche in overtime at Pepsi Center.

Colorado still hasn't won a playoff series since beating the Wild in 2008.

Minnesota opens its second-round series against the Blackhawks at United Center on Friday (9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS). Chicago needed five games to knock the Wild out of the playoffs last season.

"We came here to do a little more than win one series, but you've got to win the first one, baby steps," said Wild left wing Zach Parise, who along with defenseman Ryan Suter signed a 13-year contract two summers ago to play in big games like the one Wednesday. "The first one feels good. You can tell from the excitement in the locker room, the first one is good."

The home team had won the first six games of the series. But the Avalanche, who won the Central Division with 112 points, couldn't take advantage of home ice in Game 7. They definitely had their chances with four separate one-goal leads, including two in the third period.

"I thought we had it there twice," Colorado center Matt Duchene said. "It's heartbreaking, but I guess you have to take a learning experience out of it. It should never have gone into overtime. I think we all feel that way. It's a terrible feeling right now."

Colorado center Paul Stastny scored at 2:55 of the third period to give the Avalanche a 3-2 lead, but Niederreiter erased that deficit less than four minutes later by scoring the first of his two goals. He beat Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov with a far-side wrist shot from the top of the right circle at 6:33.

Colorado defenseman Erik Johnson made it 4-3 with his goal off a wrist shot from inside the blue line with 8:44 to play, but Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon erased that deficit with 2:27 to play in regulation.

Spurgeon saw Avalanche rookie Nathan MacKinnon go down on one knee to slide through his shooting lane in an attempt to block the shot, so he pump faked, pulled the puck back in and found a different lane. He wired his shot from the right circle into the top left corner of the net.

"Spurgeon on that goal had to show great patience," Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. "[MacKinnon] was off position at the start, but he showed great urgency going down and try to block the shot, and then [Spurgeon] brought it back. It was a gutsy move from him, and it paid off."

Thirty-one seconds after Johnson scored, Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper had to leave the game with an undisclosed injury.

Kuemper was taken out by Duchene behind the net in the second period, and Wild coach Mike Yeo said the injury might have been related to that play. Yeo didn't have an update on Kuemper when he addressed the media after the game.

Ilya Bryzgalov replaced Kuemper, but the Wild did not surrender a shot on goal over the final 8:13 of regulation. Bryzgalov's lone save came in overtime, when Stastny's 25-foot wrist shot hit off his shoulder.

"It nicked his shoulder," Stastny said. "It should have gone in. It's one I'll be thinking about for a while."

Less than three minutes later Niederreiter converted on a 2-on-1 rush with Kyle Brodziak by firing another hard wrist shot from the right circle, this time to the glove side, past Varlamov.

"We wouldn't go away," Parise said. "When they got that one to make it 4-3 with just over eight minutes left, it would have been pretty easy to get frustrated, but we kept going at 'em. We had a couple of good shifts right after it. Just like the whole game, we had good shifts right after [the Avalanche scored]. That's what you've gotta do."

The Avalanche and Wild traded goals through the first 40 minutes to enter the third period tied 2-2. Defenseman Nick Holden and forward Jamie McGinn scored for Colorado; forwards Mikko Koivu and Heatley each scored his first goal of the series for Minnesota.

Holden's goal, a power-play goal at 2:52 of the first period, came with some controversy before the NHL Hockey Operations Department cleared it up.

McGinn appeared to bump into Kuemper as Holden's shot was redirected into the net by Minnesota defenseman Jonas Brodin, giving Colorado a 1-0 lead. Referee Wes McCauley immediately waved his arms after the puck crossed the goal line, but it wasn't to wave off the goal because of goalie interference. According to Hockey Operations, McCauley waved his arms "as a reaction to a potential infraction for high-sticking the puck. The on-ice officials then huddled regarding the play to discuss if it was a good hockey goal, and agreed the goal would stand."

The Wild tied the game 5:12 later when Koivu scored on a one-timer from the left circle that went under Varlamov's glove.

"There's a lot of games through this series where I thought we were playing well, something bad happened and then we kind of got away," Yeo said. "I thought [we showed] the composure, character to stay with our game, stay with the process that we trusted all the way through. That's real impressive for our group."

Now Yeo's group is moving on to the second round. Minnesota hasn't been there in 11 years, and this trip offers a chance at revenge against the defending champs.

The Wild have one day to prepare.

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

"Obviously we know we've got a tough test ahead of us in Chicago. They've been sitting there waiting for us, so we'll start preparing to get ready for that challenge."


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