Giguere gets best of Wild again, helps prolong their losing slump
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Long before he was a star for the Gophers, and the first overall pick in the NHL draft, and one of pro hockey's most well-known defensemen, Colorado Avalanche mainstay Erik Johnson was just another Bloomington teenager, cheering for the Minnesota Wild, and cursing goaltender Jean-Sebastian Giguere.
"I remember my dad had season tickets in '03 when he played against the Wild in the conference finals," said Johnson, not bothering to recount the details, which are still burned into the collective memory of many Wild fans.
To recap, in just their third season of existence, and their first trip to the playoffs, the Wild upset Colorado and Vancouver to reach the conference finals, where they had home ice advantage over the Anaheim Ducks. Giguere, a little-known commodity for the eighth-seeded Ducks, shut out Minnesota in the four-game series' first three games. Anaheim swept, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time, and Giguere was named the playoff MVP despite his team falling to the New Jersey Devils in the last series.
On Friday at the Xcel Energy Center, in a 3-1 Avalanche win, Giguere stopped 27 of 28 Wild shots, and all 16 he faced in a frantic third period where the Wild trailed by a goal and attacked relentlessly, looking for the equalizer. Instead, they lost a third consecutive game.
Giguere, now 36 and working in a mostly second-string role for the Avalanche, behind Semyon Varlamov, improved to 6-0-0 for the season, and 16-12-5 all-time versus the Wild.
"It's kind of fun to watch that and play with him now and see him still doing well. We have a ton of confidence in him," Johnson said. "A lot of people have said this could be his last year, but he's playing darn good and can keep going."
Boosted by Zach Parise's return to the Wild lineup -- the star forward missed one game, rather than the two- to three-week absence his left foot injury was expected to produce -- and the NHL debut of former Gophers star Erik Haula, the Wild were finally supposed to have some jump in their step, and overcome the slow starts that have been plaguing them lately.
Instead, after two periods of play, they found themselves on the lighter side of the scoreboard again, staring at a crooked number on Colorado's side of the ledger. Haula assisted on the Wild's only goal, and is averaging a point per game for his NHL career, but it wasn't nearly enough, especially against Giguere.
"It seems to take us a 2-0 deficit right now to find the urgency to be effective in the game," said Wild coach Mike Yeo, for whom frustration is clearly growing. "We seem to think that we're pretty good and we don't need to do some of the things that brought us success, some of the things that we need to do to be successful. Hopefully we're taking a lesson, we're taking notes."
Avalanche first-year coach Patrick Roy didn't need to take notes on the goaltending situation, knowing a fair amount about the position. He has less-pleasant memories of the Wild and that '03 playoff run. In round one that year, the Wild ended his career in game seven of their playoff series, when Andrew Brunette - now an assistant coach for the Wild - scored the most memorable goal in franchise history. Roy relied on his own assistant coaches, who said starting Giguere versus the Wild was an no-brainer.
"Obviously I've been a bit disconnected in the past 10 years but (goaltending coach) Francois (Allaire) said that he could do no wrong in Minny, let's give him a try," Roy said. "He played outstanding tonight."
"Outstanding" was a word not heard in the Wild locker room. Parise was loath to talk about his own stirring comeback, and quick to point out that a team seemingly immune from trouble for much of November is suddenly in a bad place.
"Played a soft hockey game. We cheat. We turn the puck over," Parise said. "Once we started doing it right in the third period, we started getting some chances. But we turn it over, we turn away from everybody, we make it pretty easy for them, and that slows us down."
The big, festive, post-holiday crowd on hand, seeing their top scorer's seemingly miraculous comeback, was supposed to get rewarded. Instead they got a painful flashback to a playoff series more than a decade ago, and a French-Canadian ghost in goalie pads who still haunts them.
"I've always said it's a great building, it's a fun building to come into," Giguere said. "There are always a lot of people here watching and this year especially they have a really good team."
The teams play again Saturday night in Denver, giving the suddenly-slumping Wild a chance to prove the last part of that statement is true.