ST. PAUL, Minn. — In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the single digits worn by Chris Chelios, Phil Esposito and Gary Unger represent completeness. For the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche, it signifies nothing less.
Game 7. Sport’s ultimate test of heart against head.
"It’s obviously just a number," Wild forward Jason Pominville said, "but at the same time, it’s do or die."
Diehard hockey fans glued to an entire vacillating Stanley Cup playoff series love it for the same reason the casual fan may tune in to FOX Sports North at 8:30 p.m. CT Wednesday. This is the intrigue of an NCAA basketball tournament or NFL playoff contest, only with six previous chapters of recent history as lead-in.
"Not many things in this game are better than that," Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said after his team’s 5-2 win in Game 6 to send the series back to Denver.
Intense, nail-gnawing, winner-take-all matchups have provided the Wild its only avenue onto the next postseason round. Both Game 7 victories came in 2003, when the fledgling franchise raced all the way to the Western Conference finals.
Its first victim along the way: Colorado.
Avs coach Patrick Roy remembers that game, a 3-2 overtime decision. It was his last between the pipes as a player.
Now, in his rookie season as Colorado’s head man, his side appears to hold the advantage. The home team has yet to lose in this series, four games of which have been decided by one goal. Twice in Denver, the Avalanche have tied things up late with their goalie pulled and won in overtime.
"When the home team is playing solid hockey, the fans, it’s tough to win game seven on the road," Roy said. "I’d rather have it at home to be honest with you."
Racing to a franchise-record-tying 52 wins and earning the West’s No. 2 seed, youth-infused Colorado earned that right. But a cantankerous, opportunistic Wild group that’s battled back from both injury and cold streak has carried its never-say-die mentality into the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Said winger Zach Parise, who scrapped his way to two goals and two assists Monday: "Game 7s are awesome, just the importance of every play, the atmosphere in the building, it’s a lot of fun."
Only Parise and a small handful of teammates have been privy to such an in-game environment. He, Pominville, fourth-liners Cody McCormick and Dany Heatley and backup goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov are the Wild’s only active players who have participated in a Game 7 before.
Minnesota’s most experienced Game 7 veteran, Matt Cooke, won’t be available until the next series — should the Wild advance — thanks to a seven-game suspension for kneeing Colorado defenseman Tyson Barrie in Game 3. Cooke has been a part of seven Game 7s with the Canucks, Capitals and Penguins.
The Avalanche will dress only three players — Maxime Talbot and goalies Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere — with Game 7 credit on their resumes.
Skating through it requires a balance between emotional control and ensuring no ounce of energy goes unspent.
Because if it does, members of the losing team have an entire summer to dwell on it.
"You’ve got to leave it all out and do whatever it takes to win," said Pominville, a 10-year veteran who played on the Sabres team that fell in seven games to eventual 2006 Cup winner Carolina. "It’s gonna be fun. Those are the games you wanna play in, and those are the games that different guys will step up and do different things to help a team win."
For Minnesota, that could be Parise, who twice as a New Jersey Devil found himself in this situation. One seven-game battle ended with a 4-3 loss to the Hurricanes. The other, an Eastern Conference quarterfinal against Florida in 2012, paved New Jersey’s way to the Stanley Cup Final, where it lost to Los Angeles.
After scoring just one goal in the series’ first five games, Parise doubled his total and accounted for all but the last marker in the Wild’s Game 6 victory.
It could be defenseman Ryan Suter. The NHL’s minutes leader hasn’t proven the most viable offensive threat, but his presence on the ice has helped neutralize Colorado’s high-powered forward unit that includes Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Paul Stastny, Ryan O’Reilly and, most recently, Matt Duchene, who returned for Game 6 and had an assist in 18 minutes, 52 seconds of ice time.
Combined, the first four names on that list have notched 29 of Colorado’s 43 points in the series.
That means it’ll almost certainly have to be rookie Minnesota goalie Darcy Kuemper that stays solid. In 273:32 of ice time this series, he’s stopped 106 shots and yielded seven goals.
A quartet of them came in his only road start of the series, a 4-3 Game 5 setback in overtime.
"I think Game 7’s going to be a lot like it was tonight," Kuemper said after making 23 saves and turning aside a late Avalanche flurry before the Wild scored two empty-net goals Monday. "I think we can use tonight to our advantage. We already had a game where our backs were against the wall; it was do or die. So I think we just got to carry over the same attitude we had tonight and use this experience come Wednesday."
But someone unexpected, on either side, will likely come out of the woodwork to change the complexion of a pivotal game for these two franchises. Perhaps it’ll be Heatley, the beleaguered veteran who doesn’t move like he used to but is sometimes savvy enough to compensate. Maybe Pominville’s open-goal score Monday, his first of the series, will boost his confidence. Mikael Granlund’s puckhandling and setup skills could be the ultimate difference. Heck, even lower-tier center Erik Haula had some prime scoring chances Wednesday.
One club, Minnesota, seeks to establish an upward trajectory under Yeo and move at least one round further in the playoffs. In the process, it can ensure the head coach stays around for another year.
Colorado, however, wishes to re-establish itself as a contender after falling into the depths of mediocrity not seen since the franchise moved from Quebec and became the Avalanche.
Those factors hung in the balance before the two sides met in Game 1. Now, they boil down to one, singular hockey game — a fitting conclusion to a tightly-contested six-game clash.
"We’ve got the confidence in everybody to play against anybody," Yeo said. "They got a great team, so whoever is on the ice is going to have to do the job. I guess the one thing is I hope we’re due. You’d like to think that the road team has a good chance of winning a game. But for me the only thing that matters is we get ready to play our best game of the series."