ST. PAUL, Minn. • History will show it was a five-game series between the Blues and Minnesota, but the coaches and players involved will remember it being a lot tighter.
It took two triumphs in overtime, including a 4-3 victory in Game 5 Saturday at Xcel Energy Center, for the Blues to finally put away the Wild four games to one in the Western Conference quarterfinals.
And with a finish to the game fitting of the way the series was played in long stretches — Minnesota outchancing the Blues and Mike Yeo’s team coming up with a key play — it was Magnus Paajarvi who put an end to the Wild’s late barrage Saturday with the game-winning goal.
The 18-foot wrister 9 minutes 42 seconds into OT sent Yeo past the team that fired him a year ago and the Blues on to the conference semifinals against Nashville.
“This time of the year you’re going to have to win those one-goal games,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. “They put us under a lot of pressure and we did the same to them. A hard-fought series and it’s a good feeling to get out of those ones. It’s fun, it’s exciting for us to get the win and get ready for Nashville.”
In a span of three hours and 14 minutes Saturday, the Blues went from likely being on their way to the second round for the second straight season, to probably hosting Game 6 at Scottrade Center on Monday, and back to celebration mode.
The Blues had two two-goal leads against the Wild — 2-0 on Alexander Steen’s first-period tally and 3-1 on Paul Stastny’s goal with 12:37 left in regulation. But even when the club had regained its cushion, Minnesota, which outshot the Blues a combined 26-12 in the second and third periods, kept pushing.
The Wild thought they had pulled to within one goal with 11:17 left in regulation on a goal by Martin Hanzal. But referee Francis Charron waved it off, calling goalie interference on Hanzal’s teammate, Nino Neiderreiter. Replays showed that Niederreiter made contact with Blues goalie Jake Allen, but then the forward was pushed further into the netminder by Jori Lehtera.
“I honestly can’t even tell you what went on,” Allen said. “I didn’t look at the replay or nothing. All I know is that I got smoked in the net.”
After a lengthy review, it was called no goal.
“They just said it was goalie interference,” Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I’d certainly like an explanation because like (Wild assistant coach Scott Stevens) said in the room, he said, ‘You know, we’re going to start teaching our defensemen to instead of box out, box in because they call that goalie interference all the time and it’s not.”
The score remained 3-1, but less than a minute later the Wild went on a power play and in a span of 4:21, they caught the Blues, with captain Mikko Koivu and teammate Jason Zucker each netting their first goals of the series.
Koivu scored a power-play goal with 9:22 left in regulation with defenseman Jay Bouwmeester in the penalty box for holding and Zucker picked up an even-strength goal for a 3-3 score with 5:01 to play just after the Blues had killed off an interference penalty to Bouwmeester.
“They obviously have a big push,” Bouwmeester said. “We take a couple penalties — well, I took a couple penalties. I don’t agree with either of them. But I know that ref. We have a bit of a history.”
The Blues’ latest lead was now history.
“A two-goal lead is the worst,” Stastny said. “I think with experience we’ve got to play a little better. I think we can’t have four guys playing one way and one guy kind of playing nervous. All five of us got to go out there, play good defensively and try to score offensively. We sat back a little bit, we weren’t really trying to get that next one. We were almost trying to sit on our heels and try and block everything. That’s when you get in trouble.”
For the second time in the series, the Blues had blown a late lead and were headed to their locker room to prepare for overtime. In Game 1, Minnesota’s Zach Parise tied the score 1-1 with 23 seconds left in regulation to force OT.
“That was obviously very emotional, very difficult,” Yeo said. “It was similar to the feelings that we had in Game 1 when they tied it up with an empty-net goal. So for us, it was a matter of regrouping, collecting ourselves and understanding that we still had a heck of an opportunity in front of us. We knew that we were a goal away from winning the series.”
In Game 1, it was Joel Edmundson scoring with 2:12 left in overtime for a Blues’ victory, and this time it was Paajarvi midway through OT, burying an open look after being set up on a tremendous individual effort by Vladimir Sobotka to get him the puck.
“Unbelievable play,” Yeo said. “You get into that situation and that’s what you need. Again, you look at the opponent that we’re playing, they weren’t just going to gift us anything. We were going to have to find a way to break somebody down one on one to create something. Just unreal strength and competitiveness to win a puck. But to have the skill and poise to skate it out of there and find the open man was pretty impressive.”
The jubilation erased the two two-goal deficits the Wild erased.
“It was a battle and we knew it was going to be a battle,” Allen said. “We’ve played them a lot, they know us, we know them. They got the best of us two years ago and we came out on top this year. It was playoff hockey at its finest, really. Ups and downs to the game for both sides. It was a battle, it was a grind and we got it done.”
“I think for me just one area is when we get a lead, we have to push harder,” Yeo said. “We have to get on the hunt, we have to get on the attack, as opposed to retreating and let the team come at us. That’s one area. But when you win a series, you do an awful lot of good things and we had a lot of real strong performances from players. Obviously Jake deserves a huge amount of credit, but it’s a great team win and like I said, we just want to keep getting better.”