Jim Souhan column: Wild tilt the ice at Xcel
When one team dominates another the way the Minnesota Wild have dominated Colorado in the past two games, hockey announcers like to say the ice is tilted.
This week, the ice at the X wasn’t just tilted.
It was close to vertical.
Whichever end of the Xcel Energy Center Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov skated toward at the beginning of a period, he quickly found green sweaters piling up on him as if he were at the bottom of a Goodwill bin after Christmas.
When the series relocated to St. Paul, the Wild dominated the action by a margin that, were this an election, would have caused Patrick Roy to call with congratulations.
Because it’s hockey, the actual results remain more random. Even while dominating almost every aspect of play, the Wild needed overtime to score a mere goal in their Game 3 victory, and even a 2-0 lead in Game 4 led only to a soft goal by the Avs and another third period of drama.
That third period ended with the Avs on a power play, having pulled their goalie, with Minnesota’s Mikael Granlund scrambling to regain his lost stick. The Avs had a 6-3 advantage in skaters with sticks, and yet Granlund blocked three shots in his effort to become a folk hero in a fortnight.
“That was awesome,” Zach Parise said.
“I’m just glad he got his stick back,” Jason Pominville said.
What has become clear in St. Paul is that the Wild are the better and deeper team right now.
If only the Wild hadn’t choked in the third period of Game 1 ...
Or allowed rookie Nathan MacKinnon to slice through them in Game 2 the way Adrian Peterson might slice through a flag-football team ...
Or if Roy hadn’t pulled his goalie in Game 1 long before most NHL coaches would have risked that stratagem ...
The Wild would be in control of this series.
Through four games, it has become increasingly obvious that only two factors are keeping the Avs competitive:
Entity 1: Varlamov.
Entity 2: The Wild’s ability to hit Varlamov with the puck even when he has no other chance of making a save.
The Wild dominated much of Game 1, taking a two-goal lead in the third period before choking it away.
The Wild dominated the first period of Game 2, before their defenders bought tickets, sat back on their heels and watched MacKinnon do a figure-skating routine.
The Wild dominated almost every aspect of Game 3, although the team’s well-known penchant for wasting scoring opportunities made an overtime necessary.
Proving that Game 3 wasn’t merely a function of desperation and embarrassment, the Wild thoroughly dominated Game 4.
In the past two games, the Wild have outshot Colorado 78-34. Thursday, Minnesota set a playoff record for fewest shots allowed, with 12. Now that Kuemper has replaced Ilya Bryzgalov, the Wild should win this series.
Varlamov was often spectacular again on Thursday. If his agent is smart, he insists that Varlamov be paid on commission.
Varlamov has little choice but to be spectacular, because the Avalanche defense is remarkably weak, and the Wild’s deep set of aggressive forwards has made Colorado struggle to merely clear the puck.
For all of its dominance, the Wild struggles to score. Watching the Wild with the puck is like watching a slugger hit fly ball after fly ball to the warning track. The arc is majestic; the results are negligible.
To summarize: The Wild dominated most of Game 1, some of Game 2, all of Game 3 and all of Game 4. Its reward is a 2-2 tie with the series heading back to Colorado today.
By now, the Wild have to believe they are the better team, and that their superior depth will win out if they can only find a way to deflect in the occasional goal past the always-sprawling Varlamov.
After Game 2, it looked as if MacKinnon would be the irrepressible youngster who would make this series his own.
Thursday night, after Game 4, it was Granlund who looked like the most complete, and gutsy, youngster on the suddenly tilted ice.
- Thursday night’s Game 4 was the highest-rated Wild telecast on Fox Sports North. The game generated a 12.7 household rating in the Twin Cities area, according to Nielsen Media Research. That tops the previous record of 10.13 set during the first round versus Chicago last season. In the Minneapolis–St. Paul market, 17,280 households represent one rating point. That means more than 219,450 households tuned in for the game.
Jim Souhan is a sports columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune