By Joan Niesen
DENVER -- Game 7. The words have a certain charge, don’t they? They’re all nail-biting and screaming, cowbells and pom-poms, clenching every muscle in one’s seat or on one’s couch. Game 7's are moments only the best teams have the privilege of experiencing (unless, of course, they’re the Atlanta Hawks), but sometimes these gifts from the sports gods don’t quite live up to their billing.
Sometimes, Game 7 can be empty. Take a miraculous shebang of a Game 6, and it can seem like the other guys are out of it, or maybe there’s been an injury, or maybe one team simply comes out flat.
Wednesday night in Denver was none of those things, not a one. Avalanche-Wild was the definition of Game 7, and when Minnesota bested Colorado, 5-4 in overtime on a Nino Niederreiter wrister, the life sucked was out of the Pepsi Center as only it can after one of these games, when tens of thousands of fans and one team must go home -- for good.
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Let’s start, however nonsensically, at the beginning of the third period, because that’s when what truly matters began. Tied 2-2, the game had been back-and-forth up to that moment: Avs, Wild, Avs, Wild. No team ever accrued more than a one-goal lead, and there was no shortage of those plays that make breathing an afterthought, the breakaways and scrums around the nets, those moments when ohmygoshwhereisthepuck.
So yes, the third period, in which the teams matched each other goal-for-goal. First, Colorado center Paul Stasny 2:55 into the period, to give the Avalanche a 3-2 lead. Next came the Wild's right wing Niederreiter, and it almost seemed as if it was predetermined, because the scoring and the tension weren’t going to end with more than 13 minutes to go.
“We battled, battled back and dealt with adversity,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said of his team’s constant fight from behind. “It’s tough. You keep battling back.”
“The way that we dealt with this series, the way we continued to fight, to get to this game, showed the growth and maturity of our players,” he continued. “You really start to get a feel of the soul of your team.”
Really, this was like a game of smaller games -- score, score, tie, repeat -- and that’s what a Game 7 should be. It should be the cry of Aaaaaaah followed by Oh, that building crescendo of a cheer, over and over, because the tension of this contest didn’t peak once, or even twice. Game 7 should be skaters shadowing each other so close their limbs get tangled and they splatter on the ice. It should be players playing, maybe a little too hard, maybe a little too fast, and Wednesday was all of that.
After scoring a goal to put the Avalanche up 4-3 halfway through the third, Colorado defenseman Erik Johnson smiled and yelled, his grin wider than that of any fan in the crowd, and with just more than eight minutes remaining, this crazy inkling that that might be it began to build. Johnson smiled like a guy who’d just scored a series-clinching goal, except that six minutes later, Jared Spurgeon tied the game at 4.
Game 7 has no place for smiles.
Game 7 is for exhales, and Colorado had proven all season that it doesn’t exhale first, that it will pull its goalie and play like a pack of maniacs, that it will win at all costs. It’s almost become an assumption, and then Wednesday happened. Then Patrick Roy’s heart attack-inducing kids brought on the worst kind: a loss.
There were no cheers, not after Niederreiter’s second goal of the night slipped through Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov’s legs. The cheers were all in Minnesota, where fans hadn’t seen their team win a playoff series in 11 years, and the sound of a handful of men jumping a barrier onto the ice don’t register over the quiet shuffling of so many feet.
A Game 7 ends with elation and with deflation. It ends in extremes. The Wild congregate on the ice in a team-wide hug. Avalanche center Ryan O’Reilly cries in the dressing room.
But the best of these games end with pride from both sides, because a good game is a good game, and two teams can be great. This thing came down to a flick of the wrist and a twitch of the limb. It would have been hard to ask for more.
“I have mixed feelings,” Roy said, later conceding that his team simply wasn’t ready to win a Stanley Cup. “There’s a side of me that’s very disappointed…but there’s also a side of me that’s truly proud of our players.”
And then there was Yeo, just as proud, but looking forward. “Let’s not stop here,” he said, and his team will train and hope for another Game 7 -- although perhaps one with a smaller serving of drama than this.