St. Paul, Minn. — Less than a week ago the Minnesota Wild was a discouraged hockey team. Frustrated at their inability to score more than a single goal in two home playoff games, the Wild were one loss away from summer vacation. But Saturday's upset victory in Denver brought Minnesota back home for game six. This time, Wild goalie Manny Fernandez says, the team felt no pressure.
"It's amazing. We just showed up at the game, everybody was laughing, having a good time. But there was this great energy of confidence in the back. It's weird, I can't even describe it. But I don't see anybody tense. We go out there to have a good time and work as hard as we can and it just seems to work," says Fernandez. It was the defense in particular that worked for two full periods of game six. The Wild and Colorado Avalanche were locked in a scoreless tie heading into the final period. Minnesota Coach Jacques Lemaire says he was remarking on the success of the defensemen playing in front of Fernandez.
"After the first period and even the second period, I was telling the coaching staff -- I said 'Gee, the defensemen are playing one of their best games. They're controlling the puck.' Usually we make one pass and who gets it? Them. Tonight we made a couple passes -- two, three, four, sometimes five -- and we'd skate with it. And, y'know, it's fun," says Lemaire.
Things got even more fun for the Wild fans in the third period, when Minnesota scored two goals. First it was Richard Park, putting a wrist shot just under the crossbar. Then, just after the 12-minute mark, Marian Gaborik broke away from the Colorado defense and scored off a lead pass from Antti Laaksonen.
When their eruption subsided, the fans started chanting Fernandez's first name, exhorting the goalie toward the franchise's first playoff shutout.
But it wouldn't happen. Less than three and a half minutes remained when Joe Sakic broke Colorado's scoring drought with his fifth goal of the series. Within two minutes the Avalanche had scored again, tying the game and leaving the Wild and their 19,000 fans stunned. Fernandez says the Wild came into the locker room before the overtime knowing they had to regroup.
"When we came in, a couple guys were disappointed, obviously, not to have kept them off the scoreboard. But we came back here and the leaders in this room took over. Right away, we made sure everyone was on the same page when we went back out there," Fernandez says.
For a relatively young team, the Wild had remarkable success in overtime games this season -- winning eight and losing only one.
In their first playoff overtime, they came out aggressively. At 4:22 of the period -- after Gaborik forced a turnover in the Colorado zone -- Wes Walz shuffled a pass to Park, who put the game winner between the skates of Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy. Afterward, Gaborik said the Wild did not want to squander a stellar performance by goaltender Fernandez.
"He was unbelieveable. There were two goals at the end but he couldn't do anything about it. He was unbelievable, and obviously for him and everybody, the overtime goal was something special," says Gaborik.
With a goal and two assists, Gaborik figured in all of the Wild's goals. The 21-year-old Slovak was Minnesota's only All-Star this season, and Lemaire says the youngster is improving his game.
"He's working, controlling the puck, making plays, moving the puck. Sometime I was complaining that he doesn't feed the right guy with the puck, and he's good enough and smart enough to be able to do that," Lemaire says. "Because you look at the top players -- you look at Sakic -- he always knows when to shoot and when to pass. And Gabby, if he wants to be that type of player, that's what he has to do."
After their win, the Wild hopped on a plane to Denver. Richard Park says Minnesota has momentum and confidence, but Colorado remains the favored team. Lemaire says the underdog Wild have already exceeded expectations and should feel no pressure in their first-ever game seven.