ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Minnesota Wild captain Mikko Koivu has played a lot of hockey in his professional life. He's a veteran of more than 600 NHL regular-season games and 29 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But never had Koivu seen a game end like it did Tuesday, when Minnesota suffered a season-ending 2-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 6 of their Western Conference Second Round series.
"No, I haven't," Koivu said.
Minnesota scored a second-period goal to tie the game 1-1. From there, the teams went back and forth like a couple of prizefighters, hitting each other with jab after jab. Neither was able to land the knockout blow until 9:42 of overtime, when Chicago forward Patrick Kane scored his sixth goal of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In a play that happens dozens of times every game, Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook whipped a puck around the glass into the Wild zone. But it bounced off a stanchion behind the net and landed in the worst possible place for the Wild: on Kane's stick. Minnesota goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who was playing the dump-in, was out of position just enough for Kane, who went quickly to his backhand and put the puck under the crossbar for the game-winner.
It's the type of bad bounce that happens to a team maybe once a season. But to end a game? To end a season? Devastating.
"It's an empty feeling when stuff like that happens," Koivu said. "They got that bounce and there's absolutely nothing we can do about that play."
Wild forward Nino Niederreiter said, "It's tough. There's really not much to say. It could have gone either way."
For a team as flashy as the Blackhawks, they won this series with four straight greasy goals. In Game 5, a deflection and a backhand off a bad bounce were enough to get a 2-1 win. Tuesday, it was a bouncing puck off a Wild defenseman and a stanchion that did the trick.
It's a lesson the young and still improving Wild can take from a disappointing finish to their longest playoff run since 2003.
"It's really hard to win in this League, that's for sure," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "We've learned that and that's the first thing you have to learn."
After reaching the playoffs for the first time in half a decade last season, the Wild lost to the Blackhawks in five games. This season, the Wild defeated the Colorado Avalanche in the first round to advance to face the Blackhawks again, providing the organization with a measuring stick.
Yeo said it was difficult to make a true assessment so quickly after the conclusion of the series, but it's easy to see how far Minnesota has come in the past 12 months.
Forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter are franchise cornerstones, but it's been the evolution of young forwards Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula (who scored his fourth goal of the postseason on a breakaway Tuesday) that pulled the Wild a couple of notches closer to the defending champions.
"Talent is part of it, but it takes a heck of a lot more than talent and we've shown that," Yeo said. "The character we've shown, the team concept that we have, the pride. It doesn't get easier. We're going to have to keep working, keep building and keep pushing forward. This is a group I believe in, for sure."
For Bryzgalov, it was a cruel ending to the season for a goaltender who had seemingly rediscovered himself over the final few weeks of the regular season after being acquired from the Edmonton Oilers the day before the NHL Trade Deadline. With injuries and illness sidelining Minnesota's top three goalies at various stages, it was Bryzgalov who led the Wild into the playoffs.
After losing his job in the first round, Bryzgalov entered in the third period and won Game 7 against the Avalanche. He was strong all series long against the Blackhawks, with nearly all of the goals Chicago scored in the series scored following a world-class play or a bad bounce. After one of the latter gave Chicago a 1-0 lead 1:58 into the game Tuesday, Bryzgalov shut the door until Kane's overtime goal.
In two months with the Wild, Bryzgalov said he'd never seen that bounce off the glass in that end of the rink.
"Not even during the practices," Bryzgalov said.
Bryzgalov, an unrestricted free agent July 1, is unlikely to be back with the Wild next season. That made the ending even more painful.
"Probably the best organization that I've been with," Bryzgalov said. "I've been so happy here. I wish we could have accomplished more."
If nothing else, the Wild have put themselves on the map heading into next season and beyond.
"We learned a lot this playoffs. We learned what it takes to have a shot at winning and I think we have a really bright future," Suter said. "We expect to win now. We've put that pressure on ourselves."