Anaheim, Calif. — The Wild came to Anaheim eager to score on Ducks goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who shut them out twice in St. Paul. Anaheim opened game 3 with an early goal. But their lead seemed tiny in the middle of the first period, as the Wild controlled much of the action and looked ready to answer. When Andrew Brunette knocked the puck away from an Anaheim defender at center ice, it was Minnesota's speediest skater and top scorer who recovered it.
With a burst, Marian Gaborik separated himself from the Ducks' defensemen and looked up to see nothing but ice between him and Giguere. It was strength against strength. Anaheim's record-setting goalie against Minnesota's first and only all-star. Gabby and Giggy. A hush fell over the Pond for the two seconds it took this drama to unfold.
The Anaheim crowd cheered wildly as Giguere blocked the shot. In the future, hockey fans will speak with awe about Giguere's performance in the 2003 playoffs. In the present, his legend is growing at the expense of the Minnesota Wild. After the game, Gaborik conceded Giguere has made his way into the heads of the Wild players.
"A little bit. Obviously, you think about in your head how you're going to beat him and stuff," says Gaborik. "I guess your hands get a little bit tighter and maybe you squeeze the stick a little bit harder. I just can't think about it -- you just close your eyes and you shoot. So, we'll see."
The Wild played well in the first period, forcing Giguere to make 16 saves in the first 20 minutes. But the Ducks managed to keep the big 0 on the scoreboard under the word "Minnesota." It's been there for three games now -- there's no doubt it's become an albatross for the Wild.
During their first two playoff rounds, good fortune gave an occasional boost to the hard working young team. But coach Jacques Lemaire says this series with Anaheim is a different story.
"When you do play as hard as we did in the first and not getting any goals ... there's a time that the other team comes back and they find a way to get -- it could be a lucky goal, but they get it," says LeMaire. "We were like that in the previous series. These guys seem to find a way to get the goal at the right time. That slows you down and the more they score, the more you slow down."
In the second period the Ducks scored three times, twice against Minnesota's starting goalie, Dwayne Roloson, and once against his replacement, Manny Fernandez.
The only drama in the third period involved Giguere's bid to become the first goaltender with three straight shutouts in a conference championship. After Giguere added that laurel to his legendary post-season, Brunette says he's never seen a goaltender so hot -- but added that the defensemen in front of the net are also a problem for the Wild.
"It's tough. I thought we had some good quality chances and he made some nice saves. And I thought their defense continued to do an excellent job in front of the net. I think they've been outstanding in clearing the front of the net," says Brunette.
Even though they find themselves in a fix, self-pity is in short supply among the Wild. Defenseman Brad Bombardir says the team did what it could against Giguere.
"We had some good chances to score and we just didn't score goals. He's playing hot right now, and we have to find a way to get it by him," says Bombardir. "You try not to let it play on your minds. You try to look at the effort you put in to get those chances, and how many quality scoring chances your throwing at them. You feel that if you keep doing that, you're going to get some goals sooner later. Hopefully, sooner."
The Wild's season will end if they lose to the Ducks again. In their unlikely playoff run they've already faced elimination six times, and wound up winning each of those games. Winless against Anaheim, they now need four straight victories, not just the three they gained against Colorado and Vancouver. Virtually no one expects the Wild to pull out this series. Many probably wonder if they'll score at all. But that means they have virtually nothing to lose. Manny Fernandez says all they can do is hit the ice on Friday night and play like it's their last game.
"We can't go into a game thinking, 'Here we go again.' That's not the answer to our questions. That fourth game, whatever happens, we've got to go out there and give it more than we have. And if we do get a break, we can't let it stop, we've got to keep rolling," says Fernandez.
If the Wild earn a victory on Friday night, the series would continue with game 5 in St. Paul on Sunday evening.