By Craig D. Schroepfer, WCCO Radio
It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
Going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, many people didn’t give the Minnesota Wild a chance to win it all. The Wild finished with 98 points on the season, clinching the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference and a date with the Central Division champion Colorado Avalanche.
The thought was Minnesota couldn’t match Colorado’s offensive talent, and it would be another first-round exit. That looked to be the case through the first two games of the series. And then the Wild played on home ice, where they were able to slow down the transition game of the Avalanche, winning all three games at Xcel.
When Nino Neiderreiter scored to clinch the series for Minnesota, shades of 2003 popped into the head of every Wild fan as they started dreaming of another magical playoff run. Standing in the way though were the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Through the first two games of the series, it looked to be a repeat of what happened last year as the Blackhawks won both games in Chicago. Then the series returned to St. Paul, where the Wild showed that this was going to be different than last year.
A four-goal third period lead to a Game 3 win for the Wild, while in Game 4 both teams traded goals before Minnesota held on to win 4-2. What stood out from the Game 4 win was how electric the crowd was, heckling Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford by chanting his name after every goal that was allowed. Maybe it was the late start on a Friday night, but the crowd was into it more than I’ve ever seen in my 14 years covering the Wild.
Through the first four games of the series, Minnesota sent a message that this was going to be different than 2013. The Wild were a better team than the year before and could skate with Chicago this time. Even a loss to the Blackhawks in Game 5 in Chicago didn’t dampen the spirits of Wild fans as this series was following the exact same script as the previous series.
The electricity from the crowd in Game 4 carried over into Game 6 as Wild fans were riding Crawford again from the drop of the first puck. Chicago scored the first goal two minutes into the game on a deflected shot from Kris Versteeg, but even that couldn’t take the crowd out of it. Minnesota took control of the game, out-skating the Blackhawks and holding them to eight shots in each of the first two periods. Erik Haula’s goal in the second period brought the Wild offense to life as Minnesota swarmed Crawford with shot after shot.
The game was tied 1-1 as we went to overtime. There was much confidence in the building as the Wild had been in this situation before. Minnesota was a perfect 5-0 at Xcel in the playoffs and had never lost an elimination game in overtime. Wild fans were waiting to see who would play the hero in Game 6, scoring the goal to force Game 7 in Chicago.
Instead, it was an unlucky bounce that ended it all.
Chicago’s Brent Seabrook dumped the puck deep into the Minnesota zone where it took a big bounce off the boards in front of Bryzgalov. Both Ryan Suter and Chicago’s Peter Regin over-skated the puck, leaving it for Patrick Kane to get a stick on it. One swipe from his backhand and the puck was past Bryzgalov and into the net, ending it all for Minnesota.
The feeling after Kane’s game winner was one that I have never felt. I’ve watched a lot of hockey in my life and have had teams I have cheered for in elimination games. Some games, the team I am cheering for has won and some they have lost.
But this feeling was different. It left me empty as I finally understood what “sudden death” meant. The chance to win is taken away from you so quick that you don’t realize what happens. You spend the first few minutes trying to process everything that just occurred before reality sinks in.
It wasn’t until the post-game handshake where I realized that hockey was done in St. Paul for the 2013-2014 NHL season. What makes this loss difficult is that Wild fans weren’t ready for the season to end. They were ready to head to Chicago for Game 7 where anything could happen.
Minnesota skated and played better than the Blackhawks throughout most of the series. If the Wild could play with Chicago, then they could play with any team in the NHL. Get by the Blackhawks and who knows how far Minnesota could have gone in the playoffs. Unfortunately, the team that plays better doesn’t always win in the post-season.
That’s hockey I guess.