Before the Pespi Center crowd could even settle into their seats, their beloved Avalanche were already down by two goals.
The Minnesota Wild took charge of the game as soon as the referee dropped the puck, and though the Avs fought hard for the last 59 minutes of the game, choosing not to play for the first minute proved fatal as the Wild were able to hold off the Avalanche comeback and leave the ice with a 4-3 victory.
“I thought we played with pretty good effort tonight considering we were down two to nothing, but it wasn’t enough; we need to start off better,” said Avalanche goaltender Craig Anderson.
Just 30 seconds into the contest the Wild brought a strong surge of pressure into the Avalanche zone, and from the side of the net where defenseman Nick Schultz delivered a clean centering pass to a well-positioned Kyle Brodziak who promptly one-timed the puck into the net to give the team the early 1-0 lead.
The Wild had so much fun scoring, they decided to do it again; thirty seconds after their first goal they unleashed another wave of pressure, and from behind the net Wild forward Andrew Brunette won a tough struggle for a loose puck, brought the puck in front of the net and flung it past Anderson to double the lead to 2-0. This second goal for the Wild at 1:01 set a new Avalanche franchise record for the fastest two goals scored on the team to start a game. The previous record of 3:25 was set earlier this year by the Vancouver Canucks back on January 18th.
The two quick goals angered the Avs, and they released their frustration by landing numerous pummeling hits on the Wild. The animosity between the two division rivals intensified, and the rest of the period was marked with brutal hits and near brawls. Towards the end of the period, the Avs were able to generate solid offensive pressure and launch good shots on-net; however they were unable to score on Wild goaltender Jose Theodore.
Midway through the second period, the Wild went on a power play, complements of a Milan Hejduk hooking penalty, but Anderson made a couple of brilliant saves to keep the Wild from scoring. Immediately after Hejduk jumped back onto the ice, the Avs stole the puck from Minnesota and rushed it down the ice for a two-on-one attack. Defenseman Kyle Cumiskey flipped the puck to Hejduk, who wristed a laser beam shot past Theodore and into the net to cut the deficit in half .
The Avalanche momentum was short-lived due to an Avalanche penalty on Ryan O’Byrne just a minute after the goal. Just as the advantage was about to expire, the Wild crowded the net and sent a battery of shots in Anderson’s direction. A perfectly-positioned Brunette was able to easily poke a loose rebound past Anderson to once again give the Wild a two-goal lead.
The Avs charged into the final frame with passion, determination and intensity. Just 45 seconds into the final period, they brought a raging onslaught of pressure into the Wild zone and unleashed a furious attack that had Theodore severely off-balance and out of position. From the front of the net, Avs forward Chris Stewart passed the puck beside him to Hejduk who swiftly slapped it into a wide open net to score his second goal of the night and to cut into the score at 3-2. This goal invigorated the Pepsi Center Crowd as they released a sustained roar of appreciation. The goal also energized the Avs, who continued to relentlessly attack the Wild zone with a series of effective offensive shifts.
However, the crowd – and the Avs – were silenced by Minnesota, as with eight minutes left to play the Wild generated their own surge of offensive pressure, and Wild winger Martin Havlat fired a rocket slap shot that bounced off of Anderson’s pads to a perfectly-placed Pierre-Marc Bouchard who pushed the rebound into the net to increase their lead to 4-2.
“I played the puck behind the net with a backhand and it took a weird bounce off the boards right to their guy,” Anderson said about the play. “He shot it as far wide as he could and it just clipped my toe, came right back to the slot and the other guy was there.”
The Avs skated very hard until the final buzzer and Stewart scored a goal late to get the Avs within one, but they were unable to complete the comeback and after the buzzer they left the ice to contemplate a tough 4-3 loss.
“We need to start off better, that’s the bottom line,” A disappointed Anderson said after the loss. “We need to be ready for 60 minutes, we gotta be ready from the get go, and we can’t try to battle back every single night. That seems to be what’s going on. Anytime you give a team –and it doesn’t matter what team in this league – a couple goal lead it’s going to be tough to come back.”
Stumbling out of the gates and spotting the Wild a two-goal lead to start the game certainly cost the Avs, for they skated with tremendous effort for the rest of the game trying to make a comeback but were unable to fight their way out of the hole that their bad start had created.
“We knew, after having eight days off, how important the start of the game was going to be with those first few shifts,” said Avs coach Joe Sacco. “We talked about it, but that ended up being the turning point of the game. I thought after we regained our composure we started skating, we were moving our feet and we were quick to the puck, but [the early two-goal lead for the Wild] was the turning point of the game.”
One of the strange head-scratchers of the Avalanche season is their sub-par play at home and their inability to win on their own ice. Last season the Avs were very consistent and reliable in front of their home crowd, which makes the sudden change all the more bewildering.
“I have no explanation for that,” said a baffled Sacco regarding the Avs’ home struggles.
Although the Avs have been in a pretty bad slump as of late, if they can shake out of it, they will be a tougher, more resilient, playoff ready team.
“We have to continue to put the hard hat on and come to work,” Sacco said about the bump in the road. “We have to stay poised and we have to stay positive.”
The Avs will get a chance to rebound Saturday afternoon when the Anaheim Ducks come to town.