Coaches talk about the importance of home ice. Players rave about the extra adrenaline they get from hearing the crowd noise. Wild employees, including yours truly, will beat you over the head with reminders of how great you are.
“YOU…ARE…THE GREATEST HOCKEY FAAAAANS IN THE WORLD!”
You’ve heard it before, and you’ve probably nodded your head in agreement and clapped along if you’ve been sitting in the Xcel Energy Center stands for a regular season game.
Wild fans know hockey. They go nuts when a goal is scored, like anyone does at a game. But they also recognize sustained pressure in the offensive zone during a penalty kill. They understand a scoring chance as opposed to a routine shot on goal. They’ll stand for an amazing save and barely acknowledge an easy one.
But now, it’s time to say goodbye to the knowledgeable and loud regular season fans, and welcome the delirious pandemonium created by the same people who are now a part of an unexplainable phenomenon.
If you’ll allow a shameless plug, hop on Wild.com and visit the WILD PONDcast section. Wild radio producer Kevin Falness has uploaded portions of Wild games from the 2003 playoffs, including the Wild’s Game Six overtime victory against the Colorado Avalanche.
That is what the playoffs are all about.
The call of Bob Kurtz is barely audible over the deafening crowd noise when Marian Gaborik scored in the third period, or when Richard Park converted in overtime. Every scoring chance is met with an “OOOOHHHH!” similar to the reaction you might get when you have every lottery number until the final one is announced.
You can only imagine how bored the vendors inside the hot dog stands are as more than 19,000 fans refuse to leave the action.
Many of you were there. The Wild coaching staff was there. But only five players on the current Wild roster were there.
One of them was Marian Gaborik, the all-time leading scorer in Wild playoff history.
“It was great,” recalled Gaborik. “From the first game to the last game, especially when we were down 3-1 in both series. “And that first series, we came back late in the seventh game and won in overtime. It was unbelievable. Hopefully we can get that feeling again and go far.”
No NHL team can chase that feeling in the playoffs without stellar goaltending. In 2003, the Wild benefited from plenty of sparkling performances from two men who shared the crease. Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson each carried the Wild through a playoff series. When one faltered, the other stepped in and stole victories.
This year, the Wild will be resting its hopes on one goaltender that had never played an NHL game prior to this season – Niklas Backstrom. Backstrom is a stranger to the NHL playoffs, but not to playoff pressure.
As a top goaltender in the Finnish Elite League the previous four seasons, Backstrom backstopped Karpat Oulu in the playoffs four consecutive seasons, and winning back-to-back League titles in 2004 and 2005. Backstrom might be caught off by the crowd noise at home, but he knows what to expect in playoff game situations.
“I’ve played playoff games back home, but I think this is going to be different,” he admitted. “You have to win four games here to move to the next round and you have a lot to achieve. It’s going to be a tough battle. The toughest thing is to not think too far ahead and to work every game. Every game is a big challenge for our team to get closer to our dream.”
“When you’re fighting for your dreams, it’s easy to put everything out there and enjoy it. Every win, you can take one step toward the biggest dream you’ve ever had.”
Backstrom’s countryman, Mikko Koivu, will also be experiencing a postseason baptism this year. Following a 21- point rookie season, Koivu obliterated his previous goal and assist totals in a breakout year. The second-year center has gained the confidence of Minnesota head coach Jacques Lemaire, and is used in nearly every situation, including crunch time.
“That’s why we’re here,” he said of getting into the playoffs. “That’s why we play the game. Every guy wants to win. That’s the one and only reason why we play hockey. The feeling when you win a game, or win a series, I think that’s the greatest feeling we can have.”
In 2003, that feeling seemed to linger for the fans involved in playoff hockey hysteria. With minimal expectations for the team, every win was treated like an unexpected gift. Even after the Wild was swept out of the Western Conference finals by Anaheim, the happy-go-lucky vibes carried right on through the summer.
Expectations among the fans are different for this team, which surpassed the 100-point mark for the first time in franchise history. The fans aren’t the only folks gearing up for a long run. Players like Mark Parrish, who has never experienced the second round of the playoffs, know that there aren’t a lot of chances like this.
“It’s something special for a guy like me who has been around awhile now,” said Parrish, who captained his hometown team for the final two months of the regular season. “Maybe some of these young guys don’t realize how tough it is just to make it to the playoffs, let alone actually do some damage in there, and you really have to take advantage of it.”
Gaborik, Parrish, Koivu and Backstrom are all awaiting their first touch of the Cup. Their coach has held it nine times in his life. And in case you’re wondering, he’s not tired of the experience, and he wants to do it again.
“It’s good. It’s fun,” said the permanently calm Lemaire, who delighted the media in 2003 with his relaxed humor, which compared favorably with the uptight nature of his counterparts. “It’s different than the season. You get (that intensity) at different times in the season. You have big games that you prepare for and get that excitement. Now, it’s a short time and you have to be at your best.”
Will the Wild’s “best” be better than the best of Anaheim or Detroit or Vancouver? Can the team chemistry, which has never been better in club history, translate into 16 more victories? Can that magic from 2003 be recaptured and provide the state of Minnesota with its first-ever Stanley Cup?
“The memory of 2003 makes us very hungry,” said Gaborik. “Especially the guys who were here and guys who have been in the playoffs. It’s going to be a big challenge for everybody. The atmosphere is totally different and exciting, and the hockey is going to be on a different level. Every team out there is strong and it doesn’t matter who we play. We’ve got to leave everything out there.”
Backstrom agrees, saying that a team that won nine straight games in the month of March has more in the tank.
“I think we have improved our game a lot, but I think we can still do better. We’ve come a long way, and now the best part is in front of us. You can’t be satisfied. You have to want more and more all of the time.”
That won’t be a problem for Wild fans, who don’t just want more. They expect more. And they’re not alone. The Wild players and coaches do as well, because as Lemaire says, “Sixteen teams, one parade.”
It certainly would be a fun one made complete by the greatest hockey fans in the world.