ST. PAUL, Minn. — Mikael Granlund was stick-less and alone to defend the point, facing an Avalanche offense with a two-man advantage due to a power play and having pulled goaltender Semyon Varlamov in the final minutes.
Granlund, the Minnesota Wild forward known more for his playmaking than defense, laid out to block a shot. His stick still stuck along the boards while Colorado controlled the puck, Granlund blocked two more shots, not even giving the Avalanche a chance to test Minnesota goaltender Darcy Kuemper.
The Finnish forward who won Game 3 in overtime with a skillful individual play sacrificed his body to make the defining plays in Game 4, signifying the Wild’s all-out effort in dominating two games in Minnesota and evening the first-round playoff series at two games apiece.
"Well, this is sort of the attitude that our whole group has," Minnesota head coach Mike Yeo said. "Everybody’s committed to playing a certain way, and when you go out and you do that, then a different guy has that opportunity, and obviously some guys play in different situations and then a guy like that has an opportunity to create a great goal last game.
"But being out in the penalty-killing situation that (Granlund) was at the end of the game and knowing how important that is, and knowing what his teammates need from him, that’s what we’ve seen from everybody. And that’s why we’ve been successful the last couple games."
The Wild earned a 2-1 victory in Game 4 with another shutdown defensive effort and a puck-possession game offensively. Despite a 32-12 shot advantage on Thursday night — and 78-34 advantage in the past two games — Minnesota wasn’t breathing easily at the end of the game. Ultimately, Charlie Coyle’s second-period goal, the benefit of a tricky bounce off the glass that found its way to Coyle’s stick in front of the net, was the game-winner.
Two one-goal victories don’t begin to explain the Wild’s play in evening the series heading into Game 5 in Denver on Saturday.
Minnesota controlled play throughout the two home games at the Xcel Energy Center, thriving on a loud home crowd with smart, clean play. The Avalanche went more than 20 minutes since Ryan O’Reilly scored in the second period with just one shot, before a final flurry at the end, complete with Granlund’s heroics.
"Desperation has to be there and I think it’s definitely increased," Minnesota forward Jason Pominville said. "Not that we played bad in their barn, but I think we had our backs against the wall when we came here and we stepped it up a notch, took it to another level. And we’ve got to find a way to bring that same type of energy and physicality, and play with the puck, as we did in our last couple of games here. Tough building to play in Colorado, for sure, but I think if we do what we’ve been doing, I think we should be fine."
The Wild lost the first two games in Colorado, undone by a couple turnovers and a defense that had trouble containing the Avalanche’s speedy, skilled forwards.
The Wild returned home believing a change of scenery — and the benefit of matching lines — could alter the series. Perhaps no one outside of Minnesota’s dressing room saw two complete and dominating performances coming. At the most crucial time, the Wild came through with arguably their best two games.
"It’s crazy how momentum shifts in a series like this," said Coyle, who has three goals in the series. "We go down 0-2 in the first two games, and now we’re tied 2-2 and things are looking bright. But we just need to stay on that kind of even keel there. We can’t get too high. It’s going to be a new game in a couple days, and we’ve just got to approach it the same way we have the last two."
Minnesota was able to replicate Monday’s effort despite the two-day layoff. Now they will look to bottle the same intensity and urgency and bring it to Colorado.
A week ago in Denver, the series looked a lot different. The Wild witnessed firsthand how quickly things can change with the venue. Coyle’s tempered enthusiasm reflected his coach’s feelings.
"We should feel good about tonight," Yeo said. "We’re 2-2 in the series. To be in this situation after being down 2-0, that’s obviously a really good thing. But at the same time, we have to make sure that we continue to have the focus, that the next challenge is the big one. Obviously we find ourselves now in a best-of-three and we like the way that we’re playing, but we can’t hang our hat on what we’ve done. We’ve got to make sure that we’re ready to go out and continue to take the fight to them."
Just like Granlund and the Wild did for two games in St. Paul.