With the Minnesota Wild in the midst of its first trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2008, fans are looking for the team to add memorable moments.
Over the last decade there is only one memory, one moment that has withstood the test of time: Andrew Brunette’s overtime goal in Game 7 against the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the 2003 playoffs. The goal capped an impressive comeback from a 3-1 against the heavily favored Avs.
For Brunette, the biggest goal he scored in his career was never about him but about his teammates and their hard fought battle together.
“The group of guys is what made it special, everybody contributed,” Brunette remembered. “The camaraderie and the closeness of that team was pretty special. For what we went through, that’s what made it special and that’s what you’re thinking—we did it together.”
It was a hard fought battle from the outset. The Wild was up against a tough opponent in the Colorado Avalanche, armed with a roster of All-Star caliber players like Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Adam Foote, Rob Blake and Patrick Roy.
Minnesota, however, was not intimidated, but respected the talent of the mighty Avalanche.
“We knew they were really good, I don’t think we ever were intimidated by them but we knew they were very good,” Brunette said. “To Jacques (Lemaire’s) credit, his self-confidence leaked into the team to we believe if we did the right things we’d give ourselves a chance to win; not saying we will win, but we feel we give ourselves a chance to win. And that was huge.”
The Wild took Game 1 in Colorado, its first-ever playoff game. The Avalanche would win Game 2, but a split on the road was a huge victory for Minnesota and set-up a golden opportunity for the Wild to return home to Xcel Energy Center.
The Avalanche showed its true talent and poise, stealing games three and four in St. Paul. Although down 3-1 in the series, the Wild was resilient and unwilling to give up.
“That was a tough one,” Brunette recalled. “We felt we could have been up 3-1 or at least tied 2-2 from the way we played. The mood the next day wasn’t as high as it should have been. But Doug (Risebrough) and Jacques (Lemaire) called a meeting and said stop pouting, and keep playing the way you are.
“The next game was probably the best game of the playoffs.”
Minnesota returned to Colorado and built a three-goal lead heading into the third period of Game 5. The club withstood a late Avs onslaught and held on for a 3-2 win.
Back in Saint Paul for Game 6, Minnesota took a 2-0 late into the third period, but a late surge brought the Avs back to tie the game at two.
“We played a really well that game,” Brunette said. “They had somebody on their team named Joe Sakic that decided for about three minutes he was going to take over the game and scored two quick goals. All of a sudden we found ourselves five minutes from going back to game seven to, ‘Oh my gosh we are in overtime what happened?’”
Five minutes into overtime, Richard Park became the hero of Game 6, beating Roy through the five-hole and sending the series to a decisive Game 7 in Denver the following night. It was another example of a player stepping up in a big moment.
“That’s what is so neat about that team is everybody at different times contributed, whether it was goals or plays,” Brunette said. “I remember Matt Johnson blocking a slap-shot with the face, and everybody who has been through those things realizes that’s what it takes. But it’s not till you see it, when you believe it.”
In Game 7, the Avalanche held a 2-1 lead until Marian Gaborik evened the score with less than five minutes to go on the power play.
“If you would have asked us before the series if we could be in Game 7 overtime against Colorado, I think every guy on the team would’ve said, ‘Dang right, we’ll take it.’ I think we reminded ourselves that this is exactly where you want to be right now.”
With the Wild’s playoff lives in the balance, Brunette was waiting for one chance to create something special, not knowing he would soon score the most memorable goal in Wild history.
“I felt if I could get a chance, that’s all I wanted,” Brunette recalled. “One chance. That was my mentality going in.”
During overtime the Avalanche was hungry, controlling most of the offensive pressure and shots on net. However, the Wild never panicked, and knew it would be okay in the defensive zone; as long as Minnesota limited the quality chances on net, it would survive.
Then, the chance it was waiting for came from an Avs turnover.
Wild forward Sergei Zholtok stole the puck and started skating up ice towards the Colorado zone. At first it was a 1-on-2; nothing looked particularly dangerous about the rush. Brunette decided to jump into the play.
“I’m thinking I should probably change,” Brunette remembered. “I said, ‘You know what ‘Zho’ has the puck and he makes a lot of high percentage plays.’ So I figured let’s just see what happens here.”
Brunette followed Zholtok into the zone, and received a drop pass. When Zholtok skated to the right post, Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote crisscrossed with his defensive partner, leaving Brunette a clear lane to the net.
“That’s what I was asking for all series, was that one chance, and yeah I had some space,” Brunette said. “Again (Zholtok made) a good play dropping and driving, crisscrossing the “D” a little bit so I had a little bit of time. I had to do something (Roy) wasn’t thinking.”
At that point, even Brunette knew a simple shot on net would not beat the future Hall of Fame netminder.
“My shot from outside probably isn’t going to go in,” Brunette said. “I don’t have an (Alexander) Ovechkin kind of shot.”
At this point, instincts took over for the forward.
“I kinda had an idea, and I tried to get him to bite, that’s what my mind was probably processing but the instincts take over before.”
Brunette had the puck wide on his forehand. With one quick sweep to the backhand, he buried the puck behind Roy just 3:25 into overtime. The amazing comeback and upset was complete.
“We did it, we did it together.” Those were the first thoughts that ran across his mind seconds after the goal, always a team first mentality for Andrew Brunette.
Even 10 years later, the appreciation of his goal is still strong in the State of Hockey and beyond.
“When you’re playing, you pushed to get there. You don’t really appreciate and understand it until you’re done and you see it,” Brunette said. “I think it’s pretty neat being in different places, even with the Wild or when someone recognizes me across the U.S, and tells me where they were when it happened. (My) appreciation level will only grow now that I’m out.”
Even as big as his goal was, Brunette still thinks there is a bigger goal yet to be scored by the organization.
“That’s what I want–I think everybody does,” Brunette said. “That time will always hold special places especially with Wild fans, and the hockey people around Minnesota. We were an expansion team and we had the underdog darlings attached to us. I don’t think it will ever be forgotten,but I think we have bigger things. It wasn’t the Cup. I hope someone scores the winner in Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals. That’s where I hope this franchise will be.”
Down 2-0 to the Presidents’ Trophy winning Chicago Blackhawks in the Quarterfinals of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Wild looks for another historic comeback and more heroes to arise.
Although new heroes may step up and new goals will come, Brunette’s thriller ill be an everlasting memory for the Wild, the 18,000-plus in the stands and many more scattered across the State of Hockey.