Reusse's Reality: Lemaire as a miracle man
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This is 10th anniversary of Game 3 of the Wild-Vancouver series in the second round of the 2003 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Wild came home tied with the Canucks at one win apiece, and lost that night in St. Paul.
The final was 3-2, in as tight of a defensive game as you will see. The Canucks scored three times on 13 shots; the Wild scored twice on 18 shots.
The Wild also lost Game 4. This came several hours after the Canucks' Todd Bertuzzi taunted Wild fans who were standing in line at the Xcel Energy Center to buy tickets for a potential Game 6.
Bertuzzi's message, that there wouldn't be a Game 6, proved inaccurate. The Wild stayed alive with a Game 5 win in Vancouver, came home to win Game 6, and then upset the Canucks in Game 7 to advance to the Western Conference finals vs. Anaheim.
A decade later, we remain amazed that coach Jacques Lemaire's club - a couple of standouts and a collection of journeymen - were able to come back from 3-1 deficits to upset Colorado and Vancouver.
Yet, the reminder for me in looking back at the Wild's single notable season is this: It wasn't so much the improbability of the playoff run, but what had come before that we should find amazing.
The regular season started with a 20-year-old Marian Gaborik as the Wild's star, and bunch of forwards who either had been around the block, or were more suspects than prospects.
Gaborik was fully healthy and played 81 of the 82 games. He scored 30 goals and led the team with 65 points. After that the forwards used all season were Pascal Dupuis (20 goals, 48 points), Cliff Ronning (17, 48), Andrew Brunette (18, 46), Sergei Zholtok (16, 42), Wes Walz (13, 32), Antii Laksonen (15, 31), Jim Dowd (8, 25) and Richard Park (14, 24).
It was a feisty group for sure, but not exactly a lineup that figured to wind up as the sixth seed in the difficult Western Conference.
Willie Mitchell was 25 and an outstanding defender. He played through injuries during the regular season, and again during the playoffs.
As with the forwards, the rest of the blue-liners were feisty but far from star caliber. The most-used of the group was Nick Schultz, only 21 and ultra-defensive.
Which is the way the Wild played it that season: trapping, keeping the shooters on the outside and relying on the outstanding play of the rotating goalies, Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez.
It's no longer the upsets of Colorado and Vancouver that surprise me the most in reflecting on the 2002-03 Wild. Anything can happen in the playoffs, because anything can happen in a sport where the teams are basically playing to 3.
That's my theory, and the NHL playoffs prove its validity on an annual basis. For instance:
We all knew that Milwaukee had no chance vs. Miami in the first round of the NBA playoffs, since the Heat entered the playoffs as clearly the best team in the league.
We also know that the current Wild does have an outside chance vs. Chicago in the first round of the NHL playoffs, even though the Blackhawks enter the playoffs as clearly the best team in their league.
It's hockey. Get a bounce, get a great play from Parise or Coyle or Suter or Brodin for a tie-breaking goal in the third period, steal one of the first two games in Chicago, the pressure shifts to the heavy favorites, and anything can happen.
The best teams in hockey are revealed over a full 82-game season, or even a 48-gamer such as in 2013. Once the playoffs start, it's not exactly a coin flip, but it's close.
This is the real reason I believe Lemaire's work in 2002-03 season was the greatest ever for a pro coach in Minnesota's major league era (from 1961 to today):
Those Wild - Marian, Willie and the Ragamuffins - finished with 42 wins, 29 losses, 10 ties and one overtime loss for 95 points.
To clarify: only one bonus point was added to the Wild's total for a loss. There weren't shootouts, so there were no bonus points available for that silliness.
Tom Kelly gets a lot of credit for taking that flawed collection of Twins in 1987, getting them through a mediocre AL West, and then winning the World Series. But the most-incredible coaching we've seen with a Minnesota pro team was Lemaire getting 95 points for the 2002-03 Wild.