By Sarah Kwak
The Avalanche-Wild series is starting to look like playoff basketball: Simply tune into the last five minutes because that’s the best part. Leading by a goal with just over two minutes to go, Minnesota was down two men thanks to a hooking penalty called on defenseman Jonas Brodin and Colorado's vacant net. With the way this postseason has been going — nine multiple-goal leads surrendered and four last-minute goals to win or force overtime — it looked like the Avalanche had a great chance to tie. But the Wild hung on to defeat Colorado 2-1 in Game 4 and even the series at two games apiece.
To be fair, if the Avs had tied it up and somehow managed to win, it would have been a great injustice of the hockey gods. For 58 minutes, Colorado was completely outworked and outshot by the Wild, who came out buzzing and simply didn’t stop. And early goal by defenseman Jared Spurgeon, the beneficiary of the hard work down low by forwards Zach Parise and Mikael Granlund, propelled the Wild into one of their most dominating postseason performances ever.
Some observations from Game 4:
• The Avalanche needed nearly five minutes and a power play to register their first shot on goal, but they didn't score on the hooking minor called on Brodin, his first of two in the game. After going 0-for-4 on Thursday night, Colorado has seen its postseason man advantage rate drop to a paltry 6.7 percent. That's a far cry from its regular season average of 19.8 percent. It definitely didn't help that the Avs lost point-man Tyson Barrie, who suffered an MCL injury in the knee-on-knee hit he took from Wild winger Matt Cooke in Game 3. Barrie will be sidelined for 4-6 weeks, and the recidivist Cooke was suspended for seven games. Barrie led Avs defensemen with 13 goals this season and his absence will be felt most on that power play, where he helps quarterback Colorado's top unit. On their first power play in Game 4, the Avs generated all of two shots, five entries into the zone and a shorthanded chance for the Wild. Colorado will need better sustained pressure and fewer turnovers at the blueline in Saturday's pivotal Game 5.
• Minnesota coach Mike Yeo has made the most of his benefit of the last change on home ice to quiet Colorado's dynamic, red-hot scoring line from Games 1 and 2. After combining for seven goals in the first two games, center Paul Stastny and wingers Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon have been held off the scoresheet completely in St. Paul. In an altogether messy first period for Colorado on Thursday night, the Avs' top line managed one of the team's three -- yes, three -- shots on goal. And it would be their only shot of the game. Plenty of the credit for the shutdown goes to Wild backliners Brodin and Ryan Suter.
• In Sochi, Anaheim legend and Finnish team captain Teemu Selanne couldn't gush enough about Minnesota's Mikael Granlund. Selanne called the Olympics Granlund's "business card to the world." And now that the Wild are calling upon the 22-year-old center, he's responding dramatically. Big time. Granlund, who had just eight goals and 41 points this season, has been a key player for the Wild in their two wins. He scored the game-winner in Game 3, and on Thursday night he was on the ice for all the key moments, including a frantic 78-second shift during which he made three pivotal shot-blocks to end the game and secure the win.
• Down the stretch, Ilya Bryzgalov made a bid to return to NHL relevancy by helping the Wild make it into the playoffs. But Minnesota's net now looks like it belongs to Darcy Kuemper, a big (6-foot-5, 207 pounds), young (he turns 24 in 10 days) goalie who was impenetrable for the first 117:21 minutes he played this postseason until Avalanche winger Ryan O'Reilly answered a Minnesota power play goal in the second period with a hard snapshot from the right circle. Though Kuemper has only faced 48 shots in 150 minutes and the O'Reilly goal was certainly stoppable, he's still shown enough to earn the trust of Yeo and his teammates. He should be fine as long as he doesn't venture too far from his crease, as he did during a second period power play. Kuemper almost pulled a Marc-Andre Fleury-caliber flub when Avs center Max Talbot raced him to a loose puck and almost won. Fortunately for the goalie, that misplay wasn't costly and Charlie Coyle scored on the ensuing rush. But it was a pretty smart and savvy move for Talbot to challenge a young rookie goaltender and keep him honest.
• Sometimes games are much closer than they appear on the scoresheet -- two-goal wins that really could have gone either way. Game 4 was the opposite. This was about as lopsided as a one-goal game could be. The Avalanche were outshot by a margin of nearly 3-to-1 and finished the game with just 12 shots, a franchise record for the Wild's defense and the fewest taken in a playoff game since the Calgary Flames launched 10 against San Jose in Game 4 of the first round in 2008. On Thursday night, Colorado's offense couldn't generate a thought, and coach Patrick Roy has to be disconcerted by that.
• The silver lining for the Avalanche may be that the series returns on Saturday to Denver, where Roy can free his top line from Yeo's shutdown matchups. Also, injured Avs offensive catalyst Matt Duchene is inching closer to a possible return. Roy said on Thursday that the center wouldn't be back by Game 5, but left open the possibility for a return afterwards.
The Wild and Avalanche meet in Game 5 on Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET in Colorado.