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Odd Man Rush: Wild find answer to Avs' attack
By Michael Rushton, NHL Contributing Editor
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The great Wayne Gretzky is quoted as having said, "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take."
While the Minnesota Wild weren't able to shut down Colorado's young and talented attack to that extent in back-to-back playoff victories, they did find a way to limit its chances.
In the process, the Wild grabbed a ton of momentum on their way back to Denver for Saturday's Game 5 of their best-of-seven Western Conference first-round series.
Minnesota was left looking for answers after allowing nine goals in losing the first two games of the series in Colorado. The Wild yielded just one, however, in winning consecutive home games to even the series, masking the fact that they themselves scored just three goals in the victories.
Head coach Mike Yeo probably figured his club wasn't going to be able to outgun the Avalanche, an assault led by young stars Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O'Reilly and Gabriel Landeskog.
The rookie MacKinnon, in fact, appeared as if he was going to beat the Wild single-handedly after picking up a goal and six assists in the first two games.
But Minnesota found itself defensively in its return home, making things a lot tougher for Colorado's young stars. That allowed the limited opportunities the Wild got against standout Avs goaltender Semyon Varlamov to be enough to even the series.
MacKinnon was held without a point in the two games played in Minnesota, while Landeskog also failed to find the stat sheet after scoring three goals in the first two games.
Perhaps it was the switch to the young Darcy Kuemper in net over the seasoned Ilya Bryzgalov that forced the Wild to go into lock-down mode. Bryzgalov, the loser in Games 1 and 2, faced 45 shots in 99 minutes of action, while Kuemper has seen just 48 pucks fired his way in 150 minutes of work.
"They're making it hard on us. They're certainly pressuring us in the corners and we're certainly not executing the way we should be," Landeskog said. "That makes them look a lot better. We're not testing this goalie enough. We're making him look good by taking shots from the outside and nobody being in front."
If Monday's 1-0 shutout victory in Game 3 stood as the Wild's defensive version of a Thomas Kinkade, then Thursday night's 2-1 victory was a Picasso.
After Kuemper posted a 22-save shutout earlier in the week, he faced only 12 shots on Thursday in one of the top defensive performances in years.
The 12 shots allowed were a club record for the Wild and the second-fewest amount of shots yielded by a team since 2008, behind only the 10 given up by Calgary on April 15, 2008.
"We spent a lot of time in their zone, but I think we're doing well without the puck. We're doing a better job of denying their speed," Wild forward Zach Parise said.
Minnesota allowed only eight shots at even strength on Thursday and kept Colorado off the board on four power-play chances. The Wild are 14-for-15 on the penalty kill in this series, the lone tally allowed an empty-netter in the closing moments of Game 2.
Asked if he couldn't ask for more out of his PK, Yeo said after Thursday's win with a laugh, "We can ask them to keep going."
Yeo noted every game is a new challenge and that the Avalanche didn't win the Central Division by accident. But he also knows his club can't change its style just because of who it is playing.
"I just think it's important we push this behind us," noted Yeo. "For me, I don't care where we play or who we play, our game should look the same. I'm not saying we're going to give up 12 shots (every night), but structurally, positionally, the way we play the puck should look the same."
Then there is Kuemper, who seemed ready to lead the Wild into the playoffs before struggling late and giving way to Bryzgalov, acquired at the trade deadline for depth. The 23-year-old went into his Game 3 start having lost seven of his final eight regular-season decisions (1-5-2), but has turned aside 33-of-34 shots faced in his two starts.
That after stopping all 14 shots faced in relief in Game 2.
"This is the best hockey I've seen us play all year. (They're) making it pretty easy on me not facing a whole lot, so I'm just trying to keep myself in there mentally and be ready for the saves I do have to make," Kuemper said.
"I've got to stay sharp."
If there is some concern, it is the fact the Wild only won a 2-1 decision on Thursday despite its dominating effort. And while Minnesota hopes the goals will come, Yeo sees the close victories as a building block.
"It creates a little more tension," said the coach. "At the same time, and this is something that we've really asked the guys, we want to get better as the playoffs go along. When you play in games like that, and you get used to playing in moments like that, when the game is on the line and you have to execute ... those are growing moments for your team."
04/25 13:14:59 ET
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