Sawatzke: Wild game provides memorable first playoff experience

Monday evening, my wife and I headed to the Xcel Energy Center for my first-ever hockey playoff experience.

Wow.

Game 3 of the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs will certainly go down as one of the best sports experiences of my life. Not counting games involving a family member or myself, it might just be No. 1.

I hope that a week or two from now, we’ll look back on Mikael Granlund’s game-winner as the spark that spurred the Minnesota Wild to a comeback series win over the Avalanche during this first-round playoff series. But that would just be icing on the cake, and really, Monday night was sweet enough on its own.

As someone who grew up a basketball fan in a basketball family, it has definitely taken some time to learn to appreciate hockey. But the last two years, not coincidently my first two full hockey seasons spent with my now wife, have been a steady climb upward in hockey understanding and appreciation.

I don’t think it’s as great of a sport as basketball and I never will. Yet, in certain ways, it is better. The most obvious and prevalent of those ways, at the professional level, is the in-game experience.

Basketball suffers from too many stoppages, interrupting the flow and often killing a team’s momentum.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs, on the other hand, are an exercise in holding your breath and you-know-what-else, because you don’t want to miss two seconds of action, for fear of missing “the moment.”

Monday night, it felt like the Wild were on the verge of “the moment,” the play that changes the game and potentially the series, over and over again.

As the boys in green controlled all facets of the game, generating rushes and rebounds, delivering hits and holding the zone, it constantly felt like they were building toward the moment.

In the building, the crowd could sense it. As the Wild dominated the first period, taking a team-record 22 shots on goal, you could feel the energy rise, ready to release when the Wild got the goal they clearly had coming.

Yet, in the first, it didn’t come.

The Avalanche goaltender stopped every one of those shots and when the period ended at 0-0, the crowd that had been ready to erupt was left a little unsure. Rather than giving the home team the rousing applause they likely deserved for playing a dominant period, the players got more of a lukewarm send-off to the locker room. The majority of the crowd, like me, was probably concerned that the Wild had just wasted the best period of the playoffs, and maybe their season, in a scoreless tie.

At this point, it was going to go one of two ways.

The players, and the crowd, could’ve easily came out for period two dejected, taking the approach that if they couldn’t win Game 1 with a 4-2 lead and they couldn’t win period 1 of Game 3 despite the dominance they showed, maybe this just wasn’t their series, or their year.

Or, they could turn in 40 more minutes of hell-bent skating, big-time checks, and grade-A scoring opportunities.

As you know by now, they went with the latter.

A few minutes into the second period, the crowd could sense that the Wild weren’t about to let the lack of a first-period goal scuttle their enthusiasm and neither should they. And once again, the roars rose with each rush, the energy built on every end-to-end trip by the Wild.

The goal, “the moment,” still didn’t come. But the energy never seemed to plateau. By the time regulation ended, after Colorado was stopped on one of their few golden chances of the game (generating an audible sigh of relief in the arena), the excitement of the game had mixed with the nervous energy of a team and a fan base that needed a win yet was so used to being subjected to the worst kinds of losses, the exact type of loss this would be.

And boy, did that make the ending even more special. When Granlund, less than six minutes into overtime, dangled, ducked and dodged around Avs defenders and across the face of the Colorado goalie to a wide open net, the crowd collectively rose to their feet. When Granlund, sprawling, pushed the puck into the net, the Xcel Energy Center erupted.

There was jumping, screaming, towel-waving, hugs and high fives.

Outside, there were more hugs, more high-fiving, and plenty of honking.

Maybe, in the big picture, it won’t mean anything. Maybe it will be a blip, one win in a 4-1 series loss.

But not if you were there. Monday night was a heckuva hockey game, a heckuvan atmosphere and a heckuva first playoff experience.

And it will always be a heckuva memory.

Contact Clay Sawatzke at clay.sawatzke@ecm-inc.com

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