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Zulgad: Wild's confidence continues to build in Game 4 win over Avs

by Judd Zulgad, 1500ESPN.com Updated 17 months ago | 2351 reads

ST. PAUL -- The Wild left Colorado last Saturday trailing the Avalanche 2-0 in their first-round playoff series and looking like prime candidates for a quick exit from the postseason.

But while back-to-back losses on the road would have seemed to leave Mike Yeo's team deflated, the reality was the Wild's players actually felt more positive about their chances than anyone could have known.

That positivity stemmed from a 5-4 overtime loss in Game 1. Most outsiders considered it a heart-breaking defeat because miscues by the Wild caused them to surrender a two-goal lead in the third period. Paul Stastny tied it with 13.4 seconds left in regulation and then won it in the fourth period.

But Wild winger Zach Parise wasn't dejected at all.

"In our minds we felt we should have had a split out in Colorado," he said. "It didn't happen but that was kind of our mindset that we had more than a great chance to win (Game 1). It just gave us a sense that we can play with these guys and we can beat them. Even though we were down 2-0 coming home, we've played well here all year, we've responded pretty well when we've been up against the wall. We continued to do it these last two games."

That would be an understatement.

Parise spoke after picking up an assist in the Wild's 2-1 victory over the Avalanche on Thursday night before 19,396 loud fans at Xcel Energy Center. The win tied the series at 2-2 and officially shifted all momentum to the Wild's side as the teams return to Colorado for Game 5 on Saturday.

The final scores of the two games at the X - the Wild won 1-0 in overtime on Monday before earning another narrow victory on Thursday - don't begin to do justice to just how much the Wild dominated the Avs.

Remember all that speed the Avalanche showed in the opening two games? The Wild neutralized it. Center Nathan Mackinnon, a lock to win the NHL's Rookie of the Year, went from a dominant player in Colorado to an afterthought in Minnesota.

"What I appreciate is we were able to play a more complete game the last couple of games," Yeo said. "You can't get rattled and that's the tricky part right now. When the stakes are so high, to be able to stay in the moment and be able to execute and focus on our game ... the good part for me is our habits, our structure, our game is so consistent from game to game to game that as long as we fall back on that, we should be able to do that."

It doesn't hurt that the Avalanche blue liners, an unremarkable group entering this series, have become downright suspect with offensive defenseman Tyson Barrie sidelined because of a knee injury suffered in Game 3.

As for the tradeoff of Barrie for Wild third-line winger Matt Cooke, who was suspended seven games for a knee-on-knee hit with Barrie, it's not even close. It's brutal to say, but you'd sacrifice Cooke from your lineup any day, if that means Barrie isn't on the ice.

This isn't to sell the Wild short.

After outshooting the Avalanche 46-22 in Game 3, the Wild gave up only 12 shots on Thursday and had 32 on Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov is the sole reason the two games weren't blowouts for the Wild. The Avalanche's shot totals on Thursday went like this: three in the first period, four in the second and five in the third.

Colorado's only real pressure in the third came after Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin was assessed a hooking penalty with 2 minutes, 14 seconds remaining. Colorado pulled Varlamov, giving them a six-on-four advantage.

Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper, who gave up a shaky goal to Ryan O'Reilly in the second period, making it 2-1, made a few key saves late, including one on O'Reilly from in close. Otherwise, the Wild defenders did everything in their power to block shots and keep the puck away from Kuemper.

"I think (Thursday's success) was confidence coming from last game," said Wild winger Charlie Coyle, who scored what proved to be the game-winning goal in the second period. "Every game is a new game and you have got to always bring that energy and same focus, but I think we fed off of last game and how well we played. Everyone was going, and I think it was the same thing tonight."

The Wild now most find a way to take the focus and momentum they built in the past two games at the X and ship it with them to Colorado. What's the key to doing that?

Defenseman Ryan Suter called it a "huge challenge."

Said Parise: "You just see what works. What we've been doing that's working against them. How we've been denying their speed, denying their rush plays. We've got to do it on the road now."

If the Wild are successful, they won't be exiting the postseason anytime soon.


Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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