St. Paul, Minn. — The Wild held a 2-1 lead and were on the power play, less than three minutes away from victory, when defenseman Andrei Zyuzin was sent to the penalty box for hooking. With four skaters per side on the ice, Canucks defenseman Ed Jovanovski drilled a shot past Wild goaltender Manny Fernandez to tie the game.
But there was more heartbreak ahead for Minnesota. During the overtime, officials handed defenseman Filip Kuba a double minor for high sticking -- giving Vancouver a man advantage for four minutes. Forward Cliff Ronning said after the game the Wild nearly regained the momentum by killing that penalty.
"When they have a four-minute power play, that's pretty dangerous. We killed it off right almost to the end, and then they scored a one-timer that was right along the ice and Manny just couldn't get there."
The goal by Brent Sopel gave the Canucks their second overtime win of the series. It also handed the Wild their fourth loss in five home games during the playoffs.
There's only one reason why they tied. You guys saw the game. I can't comment on it. Only one reason.
After the game, Wild Coach Jacques Lemaire said he did not want to comment on the penalties called against Minnesota. But he indirectly attributed the loss to the officiating, when he interrupted a reporter's question about the tying goal.
"There's only one reason ... I'm sorry, there's only one reason why they tied. You guys saw the game. I can't comment on it. Only one reason," Lemaire said.
Coaches are subject to fines from the National Hockey League if they complain too stridently about officials' calls, which might explain Lemaire's tight-lipped position on the turning point of the game.
But Minnesota's loss cannot be laid entirely at the skates of the referees. Lemaire conceded there were too many times when Wild defensemen found themselves outnumbered by Canuck forwards on Vancouver breakaways. He did not fault their effort, but said the Wild did not play their sharpest game.
During the regular season, Minnesota went undefeated in games in which they led going into the third period. That makes it somewhat surprising that they've now blown late leads in two playoff losses to the Canucks. On that point, Lemaire returned to the officiating.
"Sometimes you get the lead and then a couple penalties will change the whole game. Depending on the other team's power play, depending on how you kill penalties, depending on the breaks the other team could get," Lemaire said.
The Wild's Stanley Cup hopes now hinge on beating the Canucks three times in a row, with two of the games in Vancouver. Zyuzin says as the Wild head west for game five, they need to play well enough that they're not vulnerable to last-minute misfortune, from any direction.
"We have to work. We have to work against their team and we have to work against the referees. We just have to go there and play, that's all," said Zyuzin.
Even though this is their first year in the playoffs, the Wild already have experience with a three games to one deficit, having shocked the Colorado Avalanche with an unlikely comeback in their first round series.
The Avalanche, who won the Northwest division, were generally regarded as a more potent foe than the second-place Canucks. But Wild defenseman Brad Bombardir says any team looks formidable once they've taken three out of four games in a best of seven series.
"If you're down three games to one, you're down three games to one. It doesn't matter who your opponent is. It's a long road back. Can this team do it? Absolutely," said Bombardir. "I think this team proved it in the last series and the boys can do it again. Obviously, it's an uphill battle, but we have a lot of character in this dressing room. Guys have battled all year and no one's quit, no one's backed down all year."
No matter how the Vancouver series ends, it has been a remarkable season for the Wild. Under the tutelage of Lemaire, they've already surprised the hockey world by making the playoffs and winning a series in only their third year of existence. Center Wes Walz says this year's playoff experience is valuable for a young team like the Wild.
"The experiences that we're gathering here in these playoffs have been astronomical. These are going to pay dividends down the road for years and years, when I'm long gone," said Walz. "We've got some great young players that are going to be the foundation of this. What's happening here right now is obviously disappointing, but in the big picture these experiences are going to make us better."
Game five is on Monday night. If the Wild win, game six would be in St. Paul on Wednesday.