Zulgad: Trade for Nino Niederreiter pays big dividends in Game 7
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Nothing has come easy for the Minnesota Wild this season, so it was only fitting that they had to rally from deficits four times on Wednesday night before Nino Niederreiter gave his team a 5-4 overtime victory over the host Colorado Avalanche.
The win was the first by a visiting team in what turned out to be a terrific series and built up the exact the type of animosity against a division foe that the NHL wanted when it realigned its divisions.
There was plenty of credit to go around for the Wild.
Jared Spurgeon's wrist shot at 17:33 of the third period beat Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov to tie the score and force overtime.
Ryan Suter, who had made some uncharacteristic mistakes in Games 5 and 6, made a phenomenal play in overtime by laying out on the ice to break up a two-on-one moments before the puck turned up ice for the final time.
Dany Heatley, who had been a regular scratch late in the season and early in the playoffs, tied it at 2 in the second period and had three points. (Full disclosure: There was plenty of criticism of Heatley from this corner.)
Kyle Brodziak, who was scratched for Game 3 of the series after he played so poorly in the Wild's opening two losses at Colorado, had three assists on Wednesday, including the first one on the overtime winner.
But Niederreiter's performance should not be overlooked.
Playing on a line with Brodziak and Heatley, Niederreiter scored his first goal of the series at 6 minutes, 33 seconds of the third period to tie the score at 3. He then made a nice pass to Spurgeon to set up the goal that tied it at 4.
And then came his sniper-like wrist shot in overtime that turned into a now you see it, now you don't goal that beat Varlamov and then exited the net so quickly there was initial confusion if the puck had gone it at all.
It had gone in and thus the Wild will move onto the second round of the playoffs for only the second time in their history, facing the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks beginning on Friday.
The fact Niederreiter had been called for hooking only 1:50 into the first period Wednesday, an infraction that led to Nick Holden's power-play goal for Colorado, was long forgotten by that point.
Niederreiter showed in Games 6 and 7 against Colorado that the expectations for him going forward should be high. He didn't have a point in the Wild's 5-2 win over the Avalanche on Monday night at Xcel Energy Center but that didn't matter.
What was important is that Niederreiter made an impression in the 12:07 that he played. He had three hits, two takeaways and was all over the ice. Niederreiter was so impressive that my co-host on the "Mackey and Judd" show, Phil Mackey, predicted near the end of Wednesday's show that Niederreiter would be the hero of Game 7.
It seemed possible but not probable.
Mackey clearly knew something.
So did Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher, who last June sent Wild fan favorite Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round draft pick to the New York Islanders for Niederreiter.
Niederreiter, a right winger, had arrived in New York with great expectations. He was the fifth pick in the 2010 draft but never lived up to expectations. He had a goal and an assist in nine games with the Islanders in 2010-11 and one goal in 55 games in 2011-12. He also was a dismal minus-29 in the plus-minus ratings.
Things became so strained between Niederreiter and the Islanders that following the conclusion of the NHL lockout, New York did not invite him to its training camp.
There were reports that Niederreiter asked for a trade. Islanders general manager Garth Snow denied this, knowing that any leverage he might have with other teams would be lost if he acknowledged the player wanted out.
It became clear that Fletcher might have gotten the best of Snow when former North Stars general manager and well-known hockey analyst Lou Nanne raved about Niederreiter's skills shortly after the trade.
Niederreiter's skills were on display at times during the regular season as he finished sixth on the Wild in scoring with 14 goals and 22 assists in 81 games. He was a solid plus-12.
Clutterbuck, who was loved for his last name and his attempts to check anyone who skated, had 19 points (12 goals and seven assists) and was a minus-9 in 73 regular-season games with the Islanders.
Niederreiter won't turn 22 until next September. Clutterbuck is 26 years old.
There were times this season it appeared the Niederreiter trade had the potential to turn into a steal for the Wild. What we didn't realize is that potential would be reached late Wednesday in Colorado.