Minnesota Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper watches as the puck goes in the goal in overtime Saturday. The Avalanche won 4-3, edging the Wild 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.
Chris Schneider/Chris Schneider/Associated Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. — By the time its plane landed in St. Paul early Sunday morning, goaltender Darcy Kuemper said, the Wild had moved on.
"Right away," Kuemper said, "I think that guys were getting geared up for tomorrow night and knowing what was at stake."
That means putting behind them a missed offside call that allowed P.A. Parenteau to pot the game-tying goal with 1:14 left in regulation Saturday night. It means forgetting Nathan MacKinnon’s overtime wrister 3 1/2 minutes of ice time later. It means ignoring the fact Minnesota could be leading or perhaps already have wrapped up this series if not for two last-minute, 6-on-5 Avalanche markers in Games 1 and 5.
And it means going into Game 6 — the Wild’s first Stanley Cup playoffs elimination outing — with the same, even keel coach Mike Yeo and company have adopted through a season of peaks, valleys and predators.
"It would be very easy for us to sit here and say we deserve better," Yeo said, "whether that’s in the game or in the series.
Not to question the word of rookie netminder Kuemper, but only those on the Wild’s flight back from Denver were privy to the mood and mindset of a squad that had a 3-2 series lead seemingly yanked from underneath its skates Saturday. But by the time the majority of the roster showed up for Sunday’s afternoon skate, little energy was spent bemoaning anything that had taken place the night before.
Besides, it’s not like Minnesota — and every playoff team, for that matter — hasn’t played with its numerals and nameplate pinned against the boards at some point.
"There aren’t a lot of teams that just cruise through and every game there’s not another challenge that you have to face," Yeo said. "And for me, that’s part of the growing opportunity for our group. This is how winners are made in these moments."
Said defenseman Ryan Suter: "We’ve had our backs up against the wall before."
For the 2013-14 Wild, that came in many forms. Midseason slumps had some observers calling for Yeo’s job — some of them still are. Injuries to Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle further muddled the picture. So did Minnesota’s well-documented goalie carousel that saw five different men man the pipes during the regular season.
As recently as Games 3 and 4, the Wild felt the tension of needing a victory or facing the possibility of shining up their golf clubs for the summer. There’s not much difference between playing to avoid a 3-0 hole and trying to keep a season alive, captain Mikko Koivu said.
"All that matters is the next play, the next shift, the next game," Koivu said. "That’s all we can worry about, and we have control of it."
Within that age-old mentality are several other key factors over which Minnesota has direct control.
— In two games at the Xcel Energy Center, the Wild shut down Colorado’s high-flying attack led by MacKinnon, Paul Stastny and Gabriel Landeskog. But in three games on the Avalanche’s home ice, that trio now has 22 of Colorado’s 36 points. Hold that group at bay, and Colorado’s offensive aptitude suffers a severe drop-off.
— Minnesota is fully capable of a late, defensive-zone stand with Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov watching from the bench. With a two-man deficit and the Colorado net empty in Thursday’s 2-1 Game 4 win, Kuemper and forward Mikael Granlund teamed up to thwart several attempts. But in Games 1 and 5 at the Pepsi Center, coach Patrick Roy’s move to yank Varlamov paid off with a game-tying goal in regulation followed by an overtime winner.
— The Wild doesn’t boast the bulkiest lineup, but it can "play bigger" than it did in Game 5, Yeo said. Too often, Minnesota’s forwards were forced out from in front of Varlamov’s crease. On the opposite end, the Wild defense struggled to keep bodies out of Kuemper’s view.
But above all, Yeo said, it’s incumbent upon his group to dwell within the present moment.
Because they don’t get much bigger than these — especially for a franchise that’s been to the postseason five times and made it past the first round just once.
"This is where guys should welcome that opportunity," Yeo said. "This is a challenge, this is playoff hockey and this is what makes it great. It’s not just great because things go easy and things go well. It’s great because you have to fight through the hard times and the difficulties and that’s what makes it so rewarding.