Thursday, April 24, 2003

NHL: Wild's surprising season continues



By Andres Ybarra
The Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. - A night after a loss to Colorado left the Minnesota Wild a defeat short of elimination from their first postseason, coach Jacques Lemaire and general manager Doug Risebrough gathered their players for a pep talk. Nothing innovative was said, center Jim Dowd explained.

"It was just, 'Hey guys, stick together. It's our group, it's our little family here. Stay with what got us here,' " he recalled.

The meeting came after Colorado's 3-1 victory April 16 gave the Avalanche a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. The message to the Wild was clear.

"Never quit, that was the bottom line right there," Dowd said.

The Wild never did, and pulled yet another surprise on the rest of the NHL by winning three straight games to oust the powerful Avalanche from the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs. Minnesota became just the 17th team in league history to win a playoff series after trailing 3-1.

When they open the second round against Vancouver on Friday night, the Wild will almost certainly feel less pressure than any other team in the playoffs. No one, not even their coach, expected them to go this far.

"We were out, we were going nowhere," Lemaire said of his posture after Minnesota's loss in Game 4.

In retrospect, Dowd can see how the team's unexpected rise in only its third season of existence gave it a feeling of relaxation.

"When you're an underdog, you have no pressure," he said. "You're not supposed to win, you're not supposed to do it. So we just feed off that."

The Wild have been the overachievers of the NHL this season by far.

In training camp, Risebrough and Lemaire talked simply of working hard and improving as a team.

The results came quickly.

After going through two straight losing seasons, the Wild got off to a 8-1-2 start and held the league's best record at one point early in the season. Their hot start helped them maintain a winning record throughout the campaign.

Stretching Colorado, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, to seven games was remarkable. And winning Game 7 on Andrew Brunette's overtime goal was hard to believe.

Lemaire said when Brunette scored, he thought one of his assistants was going to faint.

"The first thing that came to my mind ... Is this possible? Is this true?" Lemaire said. "It was hard to believe."

A day after the victory, the Wild still seemed dazed.

"To beat that kind of team ... I still couldn't believe it, I had to pinch myself," right wing Marian Gaborik said.

Defenseman Matt Johnson also was stunned.

"It was almost like you want to give that puck a double take and make sure it's in the net," he said

When the Avalanche led the series 3-1, Lemaire said he would have been happy if his young team won just one more game before being eliminated.

"It would have been easy for them to say, 'Hey, this is a good team on the other side, we can't beat them. We'll pack it and go play golf,' Lemaire remembered. "But that's not what they did."

While Lemaire was overjoyed at his team's resiliency, he wasn't particularly happy with his players' performance in Game 7, and said Minnesota was lucky to win. The Avs' offense put all kinds of pressure on the Wild, outshooting them 45-30.

It was goalie Manny Fernandez who made the difference, stopping all but two shots.

Now, the Canucks are wary.

"This is not a hockey team, it's a cult," Vancouver general manager Brian Burke said of the Wild. "They've got total buy-in on their system, they work hard and they've got excellent team speed. It's going to be a very, very difficult opponent for us."




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