Minnesota Wild Playoff Heroes
Before the Moment
Hockey fans in Minnesota were still feeling the sting of losing their team to Dallas in 1993, just two years after a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. But the expansion Wild made it back to the playoffs in 2002-03, and it was huge. They bounced back from a 3-1 deficit against the powerhouse Colorado Avalanche to win in seven games. Typically for a Jacques Lemaire-coached team, the Wild played a tight, controlled system. They won the final three games by a total of three goals, and only one team scored as many as four goals once. It wasn’t going to get any easier, playing the high-flying Vancouver Canucks in the next round.
Before the Moment
Minnesota had a problem. Not a big problem as sports teams go, but it was enough to provoke change. Ever since their dramatic run to the Western Conference Finals in 2002-03, the Wild had made the playoffs just three times in nine years. Each of those three times, they were kicked out in the first round. In the previous year, their leading playoff scorer was the 36-year old Matt Cullen with three assists in five games. They decided to move out shift-disturber and hitter extraordinaire Cal Clutterbuck for the scoring potential of young Nino Niederreiter. It was definitely all “potential” as Niederreiter managed just a single goal in 55 regular-season games with the New York Islanders two years earlier and spent all last season in the minors.
He did reasonably well with his new team, scoring 14 goals in 81 games with what was still a predominantly defensive team. They made the playoffs again and found themselves up against the 122-point Colorado Avalanche. Six games and three wins later, Niederreiter had just one assist to show for it. Less than two minutes into the final game of the series, he took a hooking penalty and the Avs took a 1-0 lead. It took until the third period before he repaid that deficit, scoring once to tie the game at 3-3, then getting an assist to tie it again at four. Then, with his second goal of the game and fourth point of the series, Niederreiter scored five minutes into overtime. The Wild went to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for just the second time.
The Minnesota Wild playoff heroes history hasn’t been kind. The Wild made it to the second round once more since 2002-03, but haven’t made it back to the Western Finals yet. Niederreiter got to the third round once with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2018-19 where they lost in four to the Boston Bruins.
Before the Moment
It sounds strange to name a player a hero for a game they lost, but the playoffs are strange times. But before Walz could stand out against the Canucks, Manny Fernandez had to get them past the Avalanche. Fernandez had an excellent season, as did a lot of goalies for Lemaire-coached teams. But going into the first playoff series in team history, Dwayne Roloson was their man. Roloson had only played four games in the second season with the Buffalo Sabres, but that was a lot more than Fernandez’s 19 total minutes over two games with the Dallas Stars.
Roloson was off to a great start, limiting the league’s fifth-best offence in the league to just two goals on 41 shots, winning Game 1. But Colorado adjusted, picking their spots in a more controlled attack and they won the next two games, scoring three goals in each. Come Game Four, they had Roloson cracked, scoring two goals on their first four shots. Both were to Joe Sakic, so no shame there, but the Wild needed a spark. Lemaire switched to Fernandez, and while they still lost, Fernandez only allowed one goal on 17 shots. Minnesota scored their first goal in five periods and showed signs of life.
Whatever the book read on Roloson, it wasn’t as effective against Fernandez. He stopped 26 of 28 the next game – another Minnesota win – then 22 of 24 to tie the series. Finally, a desperate Colorado unleashed 45 shots in Game Seven, but Fernandez knew who he was facing, stopping 43 shots. The confident Wild went on to win this series and the one after, though with Roloson at the helm. Fernandez would be excellent against Anaheim, but the team could only score a single goal in four games. That Minnesota Wild playoff series would be Fernandez’s last playoff appearance.
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