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Gazette Premium Content Klee: Johnson's empty-net rescue allows Avs to notch Game 1 win

By Paul Klee Updated: April 18, 2014 at 4:24 pm

DENVER — Just as Pepsi Center got weird in a trance of white pom-poms and noise, the hockey hero emerged from the bench to hug a teammate.

No, not Paul Stastny. He was clutch, too. Pretty much Drury-like. Stastny's two goals nudged the Avalanche ahead of the Wild, 5-4, in overtime of Game 1 of their playoff series.

But after a game that checked all the boxes for playoff hockey, the man of the hour might go overlooked. He's tall, blonde and as friendly as a good neighbor.

He's from Minnesota, ironically enough.

Take a bow, Erik Johnson.

(But don't forget your stick.)

These Avs don't have nine lives.

They have 900.

PHOTO GALLERY: Check out the action from Game 1 here

Life No. 900 apparently resides at the end of Johnson's hockey stick. Soon after Patrick Roy pulled goalie Semyon Varlamov — with 3:01 left in regulation — Johnson chased down a sliding puck heading straight into the net. Johnson poked it away.

The empty-netter would have ended it.

These Avs don't do sad endings. Johnson's old-fashioned hustle allowed Stastny to take center stage and the Avs a 1-0 series lead.

"It could be a key moment in our playoff run," coach Patrick Roy said afterward.

The comeback was entirely unorthodox and entirely bad for the heart condition of the 18,074 who turned The Can into a rock concert.

And it was entirely Avs.

"It was the first playoff game for a few of our guys, and I thought we did a good job," Roy said.

There were nerves. Don't let 'em tell you differently.

The Avs won 52 of 82 games by playing it cool, loose and free, like the dealer's hand showed a 6. Nothing was expected of them.

Now something is expected of them. For a huge majority of their first postseason game in four years, they played like it. Colorado was wound tighter than a mother at an engagement party she disapproved of.

But there's something even nerves can't account for. It's something wired into Roy's demeanor that hockey, science or common sense can't explain.

"It's a team that doesn't quit," Avs executive Joe Sakic said earlier this week.

So when the Wild built a 3-2 lead on the Avs, then extended it to 4-2, the Avs didn't start getting rattled.

They started playing. Stastny's goal tied the score with 13.6 seconds left in regulation. His game-winner ended it in overtime.

This is how the Avs operate. Driven by the power of positive thinking, taught by the School of Roy, the Avs don't seem to understand they aren't supposed to be here.

They don't grasp that two-goal leads in the third period are supposed to hold up.

Good thing, too, because Colorado stunk up Pepsi Center for most of the game.

Roy pooh-poohed the notion his young team would be affected by the high-pressure nature of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Then the Avs played like poo.

Instead of Why Not Us, it was Where'd The Avs Go?

Varlamov deserves consideration for the Vezina Trophy for the way he carried the Avs during a brilliant regular season. But in his playoff debut, the first chant of "Var-ly! Var-ly! Var-ly!" didn't surface until the third period.

Minnesota's first goal, a rebound job, is one Varly usually stops in his sleep. But the puck slipped past him for a goal that gave life to the Wild.

Varly is better than that.

When the Avs needed him most, he was.

"Like we said, we believe in ourselves," Roy said.

The power of positive thinking is real.

"I like how resilient we were," he added.

The Avs finally ditched their nerves and stole a game they should have lost.

Is this how the playoffs will go?

Because this was so Avs.

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Twitter: Klee_Gazette

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