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Myers: We've got a series again thanks in part to Wild penalty kill

by Jess Myers, 1500ESPN.com Updated 17 months ago | 1711 reads

ST. PAUL, Minn. - If the sky-high intensity of the Wild's first four playoff games isn't enough of an indication that everything is different in the NHL after Easter, consider this:

In winning the Central Division, the Colorado Avalanche had one of the best power play units in the NHL, while the Wild's penalty killers were, generally, a mess. They were 27th out of 30 NHL teams in keeping their opponents from scoring when they're a man up.

And then, it all changed.

In Thursday's 2-1 Wild win, which knotted the series 2-2, and guaranteed the Wild at least one more home game, the Avalanche were 0-for-4 on the power play. They're now 1-for-15 in the series. It matters.

"Think about it: one power play and we could've won Game 3. One power-play goal we could've won Game 3. And tonight, one power play and we might be still on the ice," said Colorado coach Patrick Roy, after his team spent much of the frantic last two minutes on a power play, with their goalie pulled, meaning a 6-on-4 advantage. It didn't matter.

When you ask several Wild players what's working on the penalty kill, you get several different answers. But most notable in the two home games is the timidity that doomed them, especially in game one, when successfully icing the puck twice might have meant a 3-1 lead in this series for the Wild, is gone.

"The biggest difference is we're clearing the puck," said Zach Parise, who has had an assist in all four playoff games, a career-best streak. "I think when we were getting ourselves in trouble earlier we weren't doing well on our exits. Now we're blocking shots and we're clearing. We're not giving them those freebies and those second and third opportunities. That's what was killing us earlier."

On the other bench, inconsistent offense has been killing the Avalanche. On Monday Roy said his team produced roughly four legitimate scoring opportunities. They may have had less than that on Thursday, when Colorado tied a franchise low for a playoff game with just 12 shots on goal. Just getting the puck over their own blue line hasn't been easy for Colorado.

"They came hard and we don't get the puck out clean," said Avalanche center Paul Stastny. "We've got to do a better job of switching the sides and our D have to do a better job of moving the puck. But at the same time, we're not getting open and if we don't come out clean, we're going to get caught chipping it out and they're going to throw it right back down our throats. The last two games they're hungry on us, they're forechecking us and we didn't do a good job."

There's plenty of important hockey left in this de facto best-of-three series. The Wild and Kings won on Thursday, giving Western Conference home teams a 15-1 record in these playoffs, which is a bad stat for a Wild team that will have to win at least one road game, versus a still very dangerous Avalanche team, to advance. For their coach, who has coaxed an impressive special teams turnaround, the plan is simple: keep it up.

"I can ask them to keep going," Mike Yeo said. "Every game's a new challenge, every penalty kill is a new challenge. We still have an awful lot of respect. That's still a very skilled group over there. This is not a team that won the division by accident. This is a team that has a lot of very creative players and a lot of very skilled players. Whether it's penalty kill, whether it's taking care of the puck, whether its defending, we have to make sure we continue to respect that."

Whatever the Wild have done to kill penalties over the past two weeks, it's worked, and now we've got a series again.

Jess Myers covers the Wild and college hockey for 1500ESPN.com. He is a member of the editorial advisory board for USA Hockey Magazine.
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