DENVER – The drought is over for the Minnesota Wild, who are heading to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in five years.
Needing a win to secure the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, the Wild held off the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 on Saturday at the Pepsi Center.
The Wild will meet the Presidents' Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round. The Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets each finished with 55 points, but Minnesota gained the postseason berth because it had three more regulation/overtime wins than Columbus.
The Wild went 1-2-0 against the Blackhawks in the regular season, with a shootout win and two regulation losses.
"Can we talk about this another time?" Wild coach Mike Yeo said when asked about facing the Blackhawks. "We have a lot of work to do, let's just put it that way."
The Wild needed to defeat the Avalanche, who finished last in the West and 29th in the NHL standings, because seventh-place Detroit and ninth-place Columbus won their games while their contest was in progress.
Yeo said he wasn't aware of those results.
"I wouldn't allow myself to look," he said. "I just operated under the assumption that they were going to win and that we needed to win this game."
The Wild could have clinched a playoff spot Friday at home, but were routed 6-1 by the Edmonton Oilers.
"Last night was tough, but to be honest I was very confident going into today knowing the group that we have, knowing the leadership that we have, seeing the way we've responded in the past," Yeo said. "We're in. But let's just make sure that we're clear: we're not done. We're just not going to sit here on Cloud 9 and say this is a huge accomplishment. This is a step, a big step, and it was a difficult step for us. Now that the confidence is there and we know what we have to do (in the playoffs) and we believe that if we do it, then the right result will be there."
Saturday's outcome was in doubt until Pierre-Marc Bouchard scored into an empty net with 3.4 seconds to go. The Avalanche pulled goalie Semyon Varlamov for a sixth skater with 1:39 remaining after Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom made a glove save against PA Parenteau.
"We stumbled a couple of times in the past week or two and put ourselves in a tough spot," said Zach Parise, who gave the Wild a 1-0 lead at 6:42 of the first period with his team-leading 18th goal. "Luckily we didn't have to rely on someone else losing. We were able to do it ourselves. Now we're in. We shouldn't be satisfied with getting in, now we want to play well."
The Wild broke a 1-1 tie on a power-play goal by Devin Setoguchi at 12:20 of the second period. Setoguchi had gone 14 games without a goal before he ripped a shot from the top of the right faceoff circle past a screened Varlamov.
The Avalanche had killed off 19 consecutive penalties at home covering parts of six games.
"He couldn't see it and, fortunately enough, it went in," Setoguchi said.
The Avalanche thought they had taken a 2-1 lead at 4:55 of the second period when the rebound of Stefan Elliott's shot caromed into the net off the right skate of Chuck Kobasew. The goal was wiped out following a lengthy review.
"It was called a goal (on the ice)," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "I got an explanation after the period when we started the next period. My interpretation of that rule being in the League for how many years now, 20-plus years, is once that call is made on the ice, it stands. Then you can review it in Toronto and then they'll make the decision. What I was told was they said it was a non-goal on the ice. They then phoned Toronto and when Toronto came to their conclusion, the League decided it was a non-goal. So both sides had it as a non-goal, but the referee called it a goal. You can see it; it's a goal.
"Like I said, in 25 years I didn't know that you could go from the goal line back to the penalty box and change your decision once it's called on the ice. I never heard of that before. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong, which I don't think I am. But that's the wrong call. That changes the game. It changes the momentum of the game because we were energized and then we lost it and then they got some energy off of that play. That was a big turning point of the game."
Backstrom, who has a 24-5-3 career record against the Avalanche, said Kobasew "lifted his skate" to put in the puck.
"I don't know if he tried to kick it, but it looked like he kicked it," he said.
Yeo said he had plenty of confidence in Backstrom, who on Friday against Edmonton was pulled late in the first period after allowing three goals on five shots.
"It was indicative of the entire team's response," Yeo said when asked about Backstrom, who stopped 29 shots against the Avalanche. "That's character. I didn't want to say it last night, but last night felt like a good swift kick in a vulnerable spot."
Said Backstrom: "We would have liked to be better yesterday, but we can't do anything about that. It was great to get a new chance so fast so we didn't have to think about it and wonder what we did wrong."
The Wild went on a two-man advantage that began with 9:41 left in the third period and lasted 55 seconds, but the Avalanche killed it off. Shortly after that, Varlamov robbed Jason Zucker on a clean breakaway.
The Wild launched the first nine shots of the game and opened the scoring when Parise poked the rebound of Mikko Koivu's shot between Varlamov's pads.
Ryan O'Reilly tied the game for the Avalanche at 18:07, a little more than a minute after Varlamov made back-to-back saves from point-blank range against Matt Cullen off a pass from Bouchard, who intercepted a poor pass from John Mitchell.
Avalanche right wing Milan Hejduk, in what could have been his final NHL game, skated on a line with Jamie McGinn and Paul Stastny. Hejduk, 37, had two shots on goal in 16:39 of ice time. He was a healthy scratch for seven of the previous eight games and finished with four goals and seven assists in 29 games this season.
"Mixed emotions a little bit," said Hejduk, the lone remaining member of the Avalanche's 2001 Stanley Cup championship team. "This could be my last game, so ... I don't want to make a decision right now. I want things to settle down a little bit and talk to my family. Obviously somebody has to be interested in me too. A lot of things come into play. I don't really want to push it right now."
It also could have been Sacco's last game as coach, though he has one year left on his contract. The Avalanche have missed the playoffs three years in a row.
"I'm going to go about it business as usual, just like I always do," said Sacco, who will coach Team USA in the upcoming World Championships. "Our job here is to coach this team. We do everything we can to prepare this team in the best way we can and we enjoy coaching this team. I enjoy coaching this team. It's a young group and it's certainly headed in the right direction. As far as those decisions that'll be made, those are decisions that are not in our hands. They're out of my hands. I'm not really worried about that now. We'll see what happens."
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