Monday night in St. Paul could have turned into a disaster.
Everyone knows that anything can happen in playoff hockey, but that mantra could have killed the Colorado Avalanche before they ever got their feet off the ground in these 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But captain Joe Sakic kept his cool, and bailed out his team yet again, managing to set an NHL record in the process.
Sakic's overtime game-winner in game one last night gave him eight overtime game-winning goals in the playoffs, a record that should have the subscript "Ultimate Clutch Performer" tagged just underneath it. The only other player close to that is Maurice "the Rocket" Richard, and he for sure won't be catching up any time soon.
Most people expected this sort of game to start the series. But most people would have picked a different outcome.
The Avalanche weren't supposed to come into Xcel Energy Center and steal a game away. They were not supposed to jump to a 2-0 lead in the first game. And they weren't supposed to quiet a crowd of 19,352 Wild faithful. But that's exactly what they did, and now the pressure rests solely in the laps of the Minnesota Wild, who will be desperate for a win on Friday night.
Aside from Sakic's heroics yesterday evening, there were a slew of lesser stories that spelled out victory for the Avalanche.
Colorado hit two posts, had two goals reviewed and disallowed, and missed a penalty shot, all in the latter part of the third period, any one of which would have surely put the game away. It all paid off, though, in overtime.
The Avs dominated the last half of the third and basically the entire overtime. Coach Joel Quenneville deserves a hefty pat on the back for his decision to call a timeout after the Wild tied the game at two goals apiece. That decision quieted the building, took away the momentum, and gave his team a chance to catch their breath and come roaring back.
Should we be surprised? Over the years, coach "Q" has displayed his mastery of the timeout time and time again, knowing precisely when the momentum is turning, and how to snatch it right back. The argument could be made that if there's one thing worth keeping Quenneville behind the bench for, it's his discernment on when to call that precious timeout.
Jose Theodore played stellar in net, and was nearly matched by Niklas Backstrom at the other end. Give credit to Backstrom and the sprawling save on Ryan Smyth's penalty shot. Penalty shots were not Backstrom's forte in the regular season, and that save was huge. But it doesn't matter anymore. The calm, focused play of Jose Theodore gave the Avalanche the chance to win, and they took advantage of it.
It's been said game after game down the stretch that he is back on his game, and his confidence radiates through the rest of the team. If he can come out and play like that for the rest of the series, it may be shorter than some expected.
Oddly enough, Colorado's penalty kill was superb last night. Yes, Minnesota got a power-play goal to tie the game and went 4-for-5 overall, but early in the game, during the first two periods, the Avalanche, with perhaps a bit of luck, killed off four Wild power plays.
To shut down Minnesota's man-advantage was huge. Then to top it off, the Avs scored a power-play goal in the second period to go up 2-0. It was certainly a reversal of fortune from the regular season.
The downside is the number of penalties Colorado took.
Scott Hannan took multiple penalties, and at least one very undisciplined infraction that led to the eventual tying goal. They will have to play more disciplined if they expect to win, because the Wild's power-play unit can score, and they won't be held quite every night.
Now both teams must refocus, adjust their game plans if necessary, and come out in game two with a determination.
Expect game two to be equally, if not more, physical and hard-hitting. If the Avalanche can steal another game in St. Paul, it could be deemed grand larceny.
If the Wild lose another game at home, they are looking at climbing back up a very steep hill in high altitude to win the series. Or they can come into Denver's thin air tied at 1-1, and begin a 5 game series where Colorado has home-ice advantage.
Expect to see these sorts of heroics all series long. Both teams know what it takes to win, and Friday's game is an entirely new battle. But because of Sakic, the Avalanche now have the edge. And don't expect that to be the last we see of him.
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