ST. PAUL, Minn. — The combined average salary cap hits of the three players who gave the Minnesota Wild the winning goal Monday is more than $22 million. There is a reason Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Mikko Koivu get the big bucks.
The Wild's big-money men saved its season from ending, as Minnesota beat the Avalanche 5-2 to force a Game 7 in their first-round playoff series Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center.
Parise tipped in Koivu's shot from the point with 6:29 left after an Avalanche turnover. Battling with fellow Minnesota native Erik Johnson in front of Avs goalie Semyon Varlamov, Parise deflected Koivu's point shot home for a 3-2 Wild lead. Minnesota tacked on two empty-net goals in the final 90 seconds.
"It was a great tip on that winning goal by Parise," said Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said.
The Avs never led in any of the series' three games at the Xcel Energy Center. Now they have to rely on home-ice advantage to continue their "Why not us?" season beyond Wednesday.
"They got this one, but we're excited for Game 7," Avs forward Gabe Landeskog said. "We didn't start off great. They got a power play the first minute of the game, and they took advantage. I think we need to find a way to get out to a better start and get into our game quicker."
After a great second period, the Avs fell into a bad pattern in the third period of failing to get pucks out of their zone and/or hurried clearouts that at times resulted in icing violations. That let the Wild back into a game that seemed to be slipping away from it during the second after Colorado fought back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the score.
It was another terrible start in St. Paul for the Avalanche, with Minnesota storming out to a 2-0 lead on goals by Parise (a tip off his leg of a Suter shot) and Mikael Granlund (through the 5-hole of Varlamov).
"I think that first goal for them was bad luck for us, deflected off them and us," Roy said.
The Avs then got a 5-on-3 power-play advantage for 1:07 in the first period when Paul Stastny and Andre Benoit were called for penalties, the latter coming when Benoit accidentally cleared a puck into the stands untouched. Just when it looked like an early-curtain night for the Avs, not only did they withstand the two-man disadvantage, they scored a short-handed goal.
Stastny got it at 16:59, when he came out of the penalty box and took Ryan O'Reilly's lead pass at center ice, then beat goalie Darcy Kuemper on a breakaway. O'Reilly got the puck when Suter misfired on a shot from the point and quickly fed it to Stastny at the red line.
Buoyed by the goal, the Avs regrouped for the second and played their best period of the series. They outshot the Wild 14-6, and tied the score at 4:47 on the power play — yes, the power play. With only one power-play goal to that point in the series, the Avs got a second when Nick Holden sneaked down the left side and one-timed O'Reilly's crossing pass past Kuemper.
"By far our best period in that series," Roy said. "Very happy with our team. I thought we played very well. I thought we were very good on our one-on-one battles. Hard-fought game, really good game."
Matt Duchene, playing his first game for the Avs since suffering a medial collateral ligament injury to his left knee a month ago, got the second assist on the second-period goal.
"It's a start, I guess," Duchene said of his playoff debut this season. "You've got to learn to trust an injury like that coming back, and as the game went on I felt more confident with it. There's still a long way to go for me. But next game is Game 7, so you lay it all on the line."
Roy started Duchene on the Avs' fourth line, but it wasn't long before he put him back on a line with O'Reilly. Suddenly, O'Reilly seemed like a different player, and the Avs buzzed around the Wild net a lot more with Duchene than they had for most of the series.
The Wild started to regroup in the third period, though. Minnesota got stronger on the forecheck and began creating turnovers and spending more time in the Colorado zone.
Colorado went on the power play in the third period with 14:16 left after Clayton Stoner was called for interfering with Max Talbot, and the Avs nearly scored in the first 20 seconds. Jamie McGinn had the puck on his stick and some net to shoot at from the crease, but his shot just missed.
"We missed a couple of chances there in the third period when we had a chance to take the lead," Landekog said. "It's tough, but we have to bounce back again and we think we will."
Roy, as usual, pulled Varlamov from the game early, this time with 2:44 left. But this time it didn't work. Minnesota scored two empty-net goals.
Roy is looking forward to the challenge of Game 7.
"You know what? We fought all year to be in that position to be in a Game 7," Roy said. "We're going to be in our building, in front of our fans. I'm sure our players are excited about it. I know our players are not happy with losing this game, but we are excited to be going back home. I'd rather be playing at home."
Minnesota's speedy winger had two goals and two assists, which is tough to do when you're playing with your back against the wall.
The savvy forward had the setup assists on both Colorado goals and finished with four of the Avalanche's 23 shots against Wild goaltender Darcy Kuemper.
The Wild captain had two assists in helping Minnesota extend the series to Game 7 on Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center.