Defense, penalty kill clicking as Wild shut down Avalanche

Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper only had to make 11 saves in Minnesota's 2-1 victory Thursday night against the Avalanche.

Ann Heisenfelt/AP

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Helpless.

Patrick Roy stared out at the ice disconcertedly, bearing the expression of a goalie who just yielded a series of easy markers and has been shown the door to the bench.

But this was no blowout. And Roy was in a suit and tie, not the Koho pads, blocker and trapper he wore for so many seasons in Colorado.

This was the Minnesota Wild, for a second straight game coldcocking the Avalanche and forging a whole new Stanley Cup playoffs affair.

Again, the Wild funneled Colorado attackers away from its rookie goalie and forced them into either a frail shot, odd-man-rush-generating giveaway or a line change. Again, the Wild fed off a boisterous home crowd to win a nail-biter against its Western Conference opening-round foe.

And again, the series is even heading to the Pepsi Center in Denver, Co.

All thanks to a lockdown defensive effort that fits right in with the identity coach Mike Yeo — the man opposite Roy on Thursday night at the Xcel Energy Center — has sought to establish.

Finishing hits. A pesky back check. Poised goaltending. Fearless shot blocking.

"That’s what it takes to win," said center Erik Haula, who led a penalty kill that thwarted all three Colorado power plays in Minnesota’s 2-1 Game 4 victory, "especially in the playoffs and this time of year. Just finding a way, just battling together, sticking together.

"It feels good."

Not even the forward-thinking, stoic Yeo could completely downplay his team’s stopping power the past two games here, despite his best efforts.

"There’s no question we feel good," the coach said. "Hopefully, there’s a little momentum with that."

With the volume turned up to 11 and an Xcel playoff-record 19,396 screaming even louder, records fell Thursday. The Avalanche, the NHL’s No. 4 scoring team during the regular season, mustered 12 shots on goal, tying its fewest since the franchise moved from Quebec in 1995.

That’s also a record low allowed for the Wild and the second-lowest shot total given up in the playoffs since Calgary held San Jose to 10 in 2008.

Much like Minnesota’s 1-0 overtime win Monday, Colorado rarely found avenues through the umbrella formed around first-year netminder Darcy Kuemper. Even Ryan O’Reilly’s goal that made it 2-1 in the second period came from a bad angle to Kuemper’s right, bouncing between his legs on the way in.

In the past two games, the Wild have outshot Colorado 78-34. More importantly, they have allowed only a handful of the quality chances that were in more supply during 5-4 and 4-2 losses last week.

One huge reason: negating infractions. After ranking 27th in penalty killing during the regular season, Minnesota has held the NHL’s No. 5 power play team to a single empty-net goal on 15 power play opportunities in the series.

Thursday, the Wild stayed patient and disciplined in its schemes and knocked almost every loose puck into the neutral zone.

"The biggest difference is we’re clearing the puck," forward Zach Parise said. "I think when we were getting ourselves in trouble earlier (in the season) we weren’t doing well on our exits. Now, we’re blocking shots and we’re clearing. We’re not giving them those freebies and those second and third opportunities. That’s what was killing us earlier."

Never was Minnesota’s special-teams grit more necessary than the final moments Thursday. For two minutes of the final 2:14, the Wild skated with essentially a two-man disadvantage after Jonas Brodin was sent off for hooking and Roy pulled stud goalie Semyon Varlamov.

Wild 2, Avalanche 1

First, Haula blocked a Nick Holden shot and cleared the zone. Then Ryan Suter nearly found the empty net with an ice-length shot turned away by defenseman and former Minnesota Gopher Erik Johnson. Finally, in the last 30 seconds, forward Mikael Granlund blocked three consecutive shots.

On two of them, he was missing his stick.

"They’re making my job pretty easy," said Kuemper, who stopped 11 shots — as many as his teammates blocked — and has allowed just one goal since taking over for Ilya Bryzgalov in the second period of Game 2. "(Granlund) loses his stick and still not letting everything through and just blocking everything that’s coming his way."

Yeo said he could only ask one more thing from his penalty-kill unit, which features heavy doses of Haula, Parise and defensemen Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon.

"I can ask them to keep going," Yeo said. "Every game’s a new challenge, every penalty kill is a new challenge. We still have an awful lot of respect. That’s still a very skilled group over there."

Indeed, the top line of Paul Stastny, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog accumulated 17 points in Games 1 and 2. But without defenseman Tyson Barrie — out 4-6 weeks after taking a knee from Minnesota’s Matt Cooke on Monday — to move the puck and the Wild’s defense hounding it, the group couldn’t get anything going again Thursday.

Pending a possible appeal, Cooke has been suspended for seven games thanks to his illegal hit. But even without its forward enforcer, Minnesota flushed out the middle part of the ice and rendered the Avalanche’s high-flying trio a near non-factor. Again.

No manner of Roy line combination changes could make a difference.

"We have to force the goalie to make the saves, and then our confidence is going to be coming back," Roy said. "The thing I’d say is our execution is not quite there. We seem to rush some plays. We’re not enough patient with the puck, and these are the things I think we’re going to have to do a little bit better."

It might be easier at the Pepsi Center on Saturday. But it feels as if the momentum has shifted in the series, to the point where the victor in a 2-1 outcome appears to have a stranglehold on its adversary.

Just don’t tell anyone cleaning up in the Wild dressing room that.

"This is not a team that won the division by accident," said Yeo, who moved closer to leading Minnesota to its first postseason series win since 2003. "This is a team that has a lot of very creative players and a lot of very skilled players. Whether it’s penalty kill, whether it’s taking care of the puck, whether it’s defending, we have to make sure we continue to respect that."

Said Haula: "They’re breathing down our neck every single game, and the other way around. It’s two teams going at it."

Added Suter: "We haven’t done anything yet."

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