There are few things in sports that can match the excitement and intensity of overtime in Game 7 of an NHL playoff series.
On Wednesday night, hockey fans were treated to three Game 7s to cap off what has been a memorable first round of the playoffs.
While the Rangers holding on to beat the Flyers and the Kings completing their incredible comeback from a 3-0 series deficit were each great in their own right, both games took a backseat to the instant classic that took place in Denver.
The Western Conference quarterfinal series between the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche had already been arguably the best series of the first round of the playoffs, even before the puck dropped at the Pepsi Center for the decisive Game 7. The home team had been victorious in each of the first six games of the series, which featured three contests going to overtime, a few late, game-tying goals by the Avalanche, a heroic performance by Zach Parise in Game 6, and a game-saving hustle play by Colorado’s Erik Johnson that will be seen on highlight reels for years to come.
Considering how close the series had been through the first six games, it was only fitting that Game 7 would be a down-to-the-wire thriller that left fans on the edge of their seats.
The Avalanche never trailed at any point in regulation and took the lead on several occasions, but Minnesota struck back with an equalizer each time Colorado jumped ahead.
However, things started to look bleak for the Wild after Eric Johnson scored to put Colorado ahead 4-3 midway through the third period, at which point Minnesota rookie goaltender Darcy Kuemper left the game with an undisclosed injury.
It was a moment that perfectly summed up the Wild’s season-long struggle to keep their goaltenders healthy, with five different players starting between the pipes for the team during the regular season.
Veteran goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who infamously flamed out after signing a huge contract with the Philadelphia Flyers, was thrust into the difficult situation of replacing Kuemper midway through the third period of Game 7 with his team trailing by one.
But despite this stroke of misfortune, Minnesota’s defense clamped down and didn’t allow the Avalanche to get off another shot in regulation. That allowed the Wild to start pushing aggressively on offense, and they finally broke through when Jared Spurgeon took advantage of a defensive lapse by Colorado to tie the game with 2:27 left, forcing overtime.
Early in overtime, Bryzgalov made a sliding stop with his left shoulder, his only save of the game, to keep his team’s season alive.
Just a few minutes later, Nino Niederreiter secured his spot in Minnesota sports lore by firing a wrist shot past Semyon Varlamov to give the Wild their first postseason series victory since 2003.
It was an unfortunate case of déjà vu for Colorado’s first-year coach and former goaltender Patrick Roy, whose legendary career came to an end in 2003 when Minnesota ousted the Avalanche in overtime in Game 7 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
Video of Niederreiter’s goal is below:
The resilience the Minnesota Wild showed in Game 7 wasn’t just impressive, it was historically impressive. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Wild became the first team in NHL history to win a Game 7 after scoring four game-tying goals.
Niederreiter’s overtime winner was an incredibly gratifying moment for a fanbase that has waited an agonizing 11 years for its team to get another postseason series win, moving them into the Western Conference Semifinals for just the second time in franchise history.
It also had to be an especially satisfying win for head coach Mike Yeo, who has been the target of frequent criticism as his team has failed to live up to lofty, Stanley Cup-level expectations since the high-profile signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in July 2012.
Yeo even seemed to be sitting squarely on the hot seat earlier in the season, especially after the team lost a franchise-record six consecutive games in late December. But even after that skid, the Wild refused to stay down, persevering then much like they did in Game 7 and the rest of the series against the Avalanche.
Things don’t get any easier for Minnesota, as they face off next against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Despite the daunting task ahead, you can be sure the Wild savored their moment of victory Wednesday night, a moment that the franchise hasn’t seen all that often.
You can also be sure that it was both a game and series that Minnesota Wild fans will never forget, regardless of what happens the rest of the way.