3-1. It’s a deficit in a playoff series that isn’t often recovered from. One club has fully asserted themselves and simply found ways to win, while the other searches for answers and tries to find some way to stay alive in the race for the Stanley Cup.
Entering the 2002-03 season, it was a feat that had only been accomplished 16 times in the vast history of the NHL.
At that time, the Minnesota Wild’s history as a franchise was anything but vast, as it was only their third year of existence in Minnesota, and up to that point, the franchise had yet to make a playoff appearance or even hold a record above .500 in the regular season.
But this season was different. Minnesota’s offense was somewhat pedestrian as they ranked 24th in the league in goals for (198), but made their calling card in the defensive end, where they placed 4th in the NHL in total goals against (178).
This was a significant improvement on the previous campaign’s efforts, which saw the Wild allow a whopping 238 goals into the back of their net. In turn, these improvements showed on the scoreboard, as Minnesota would never fall below the .500 line and would improve their win total by 16 to finish the regular season at 42-29-10-1 (95 points),
They earned enough points for third in the Northwest Division and a playoff berth against a very powerful Colorado Avalanche club, who according to Hockey Reference had the second highest preseason odds (+450) to come home with the Stanley Cup that season.
And why not? The Avs had the league’s leading goal scorer in Milan Hejduk (50 goals) and the eventual 2003 Hart Trophy winner in Peter Forsberg on their club. Both players ranked in the top four in total points for the campaign, while Minnesota’s leading point scorer Marian Gaborik found himself back in 41st with 65.
As divisional opponents, Minnesota and Colorado had met five times in the regular season and the Avalanche had flexed their muscle on the Wild, enough to earn a 1-2-2 record in their matchups.
And while the signs were pointing towards a rout in favor of Colorado, the Wild came out guns ablaze in Game 1 and erupted for three goals in the second period, including a power play netter from the aforementioned Gaborik, en-route to a 4-2 victory over their rivals inside the Pepsi Center.
Fortunes, however, would quickly take a turn for the worst in games two through four, as Colorado would earn victories in those three games, including two wins on the road inside the Xcel Energy Center by scores of 3-0 and 3-1.
Despite the losses, Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire felt the team was playing “as good as we could” and felt “very, very disappointed” by the results, according to a recap of the Game 4 loss from the Associated Press. The spark would have to come from somewhere.
Colorado held the 3-1 advantage in the series, and looked to clinch in decisive fashion back in the Mile High state in Game 5. But even a team at their caliber had their own doubts about being able to clinch.
“That’s been our downfall,’’ Avalanche winger Dan Hinote told the press after the team’s third win. “We sit on leads and don’t bury teams. It’s a mental thing we have to fix going into the next couple games and the next round, if we get there.’’
That turned out to be a pretty big if, if you ask us.
Still alive, and not looking to go down without a fight, Minnesota would catch the upper hand early in Game 5, opening up a 3-0 lead. And while Colorado would make it interesting late with two unanswered goals in the third period, including one with 30 seconds left coming from defenseman Rob Blake, it wouldn't be enough as the Wild clinched the victory 3-2.
They still had work ahead of them though, down 3-2 in the series, but in the playoffs momentum is an absolutely huge factor and now it was in the hands of the good guys. And, better yet, the series was also shifting back to the State of Hockey in front of a sure-to-be hyped crowd.
In that Game 6, the scoring wasn’t as fast and furious, as the ice wasn't broken until the final stanza.
But when it was, it was indeed shattered.
After a scoreless drought through the first two periods, both Minnesota and Colorado would fire two goals behind the opposing netminder during the final period and would then need an extra frame to settle the score. Another chance for Minnesota to show they were game in the series and force a decisive Game Seven.
It wouldn’t take long for the Wild to do just that, as Richard Park, who had one of the earlier goals for the home team, would find the back of the net from an absolutely beautiful angle to clinch yet another victory for Minnesota. Words can’t describe the energy from the building on that play, so feast your eyes on the magic!
With a single flick of the wrist, Minnesota would clinch a berth for a seventh and final game in Colorado. Like mentioned earlier, the Wild felt they were playing some of their best hockey in the series and they were finally starting to see it pay off, with the increased delight of it coming at the expense of a division rival.
And while the Wild held the series and momentum right in their grasp, there was still a job to finish, and the bag would need to be secured on road ice. Despite the location, and spectacular setting for the toddler-aged franchise, the Wild battled to yet another stalemate through regulation play. Gaborik and Pascal Dupuis were able to find the back of the net for Minnesota as the clubs found themselves deadlocked at two goals apiece.
Just over three minutes into the extra frame — a decisive do-or-die period for the series — the Wild would seal their first legendary moment in their tenure in the State of Hockey.
It’s often said that playing a complementary style will lead to success, and we’ve already documented Minnesota’s increased prowess on the defensive side of the puck. And that stellar defense would eventually help the puck find its way to the stick of Sergei Zholtok who would skate through the neutral zone and feed a backwards pass to the trailing Andrew Brunette.
Brunette would skate to his left, and with a similar amount of patience needed to come back from a 3-1 deficit, taking his time to whip back across goal to finish expertly around Colorado goaltender Patrick Roy to culminate the electrifying comeback.
What a moment. What a time to be a fan of the Wild. We won't say it was a David vs Goliath, because Minnesota was an improved team, but it surely was shocking and a feat that will live on in the lore of the franchise.
But this story doesn’t end here. Check back next week to Flashback Friday to re-live the Wild’s next round matchup with the Vancouver Canucks!