- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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DENVER -- Going into Thursday night's Game 5 in St. Paul, Minn., the Wild's Marian Gaborik and the Avalanche's Paul Stastny have had similar performances in the series between the Northwest Division rivals.
"It's tough, of course," Gaborik said after the Avalanche tied the series at 2-2 with a 5-1 victory in Game 4 on Tuesday in Denver. "You just have to stay positive. Keep working hard and, you know, do things for the team. You have to get some chances, create openings and shoot."
And Stastny? The second-year center with the magical genes is struggling more than Gaborik, who at least has been noticeable although a bit snakebit.
"You know, sometimes they're going to come your way, sometimes they're not," Stastny said. "Most important, we got the win, and whatever you can do to help the team win, that's what you have to do."
Stastny conceded he "might be gripping the stick a little too hard," yet he professed that he has not been paying attention to the widespread criticism of his play in the early stages of the series.
"You have to stay loose in this locker room," he said. "It's a team sport here, and I think we need everyone to be in high spirits and playing with confidence and playing well. I'm getting chances, I just have to keep battling and battling adversity. Sometimes the bounces come and sometimes they don't, but tonight, it didn't really matter, because we have five other goal scorers to chip in for us."
In addition to the struggles of the two stars near and dear to the hearts of Slovaks -- Gaborik is a native, while Stastny is the offspring of Peter Stastny, who defected from Czechoslovakia in 1980 and now serves Slovakia in the European Parliament -- the series has featured many twists and turns, making it highly entertaining.
Three of the four games in the knotted-up series went to overtime -- the rivals are that evenly matched, despite Colorado's blowout victory in Game 4.
With Wild defenseman Nick Schultz out with an appendectomy, Brent Burns, just 23, has been challenged to step up even more. He has been charged with bedeviling Peter Forsberg, trying to knock the distractible and retributive Swede off his game. And he has further stamped himself as an emerging star. The problem, at least in Game 4, was that the absences of Schultz and Kurtis Foster, who is beginning his recuperation from a broken leg, led to a shuffling that required Martin Skoula and Sean Hill to be prime-timers -- that's asking too much of Skoula, period, and of Hill at this stage of his career.
"Why we were in this series and had a little success against them up to now was because our defensemen were playing at their best," Wild coach Jacques Lemaire said after Game 4. "And tonight they didn't. Lack of energy by all of our defensemen. But to me, it's preparation. It's either that, or you can't do it."
Forsberg seemed to make it through the games on back-to-back nights in Denver without falling apart or aggravating the ankl er, "groin problem" that kept him out of the league for most of the season and intermittently out of the Colorado lineup down the stretch. At times, he has been impressive, even reminiscent of his prime. At other times, he has looked banged-up and slow, and Burns has gotten to him in more ways than one. One thing about Forsberg hasn't changed: His often stealthy responses and preemptive strikes both make the video and are off-camera.
The Avalanche's best forward in the early stages of the series has been Ryan Smyth, who has gotten off the third line and out of Joel Quenneville's doghouse. In Game 4, Smyth spent most of the night with Stastny and Milan Hejduk; he set up Hejduk for a tap-in and was an effective screen on Ruslan Salei's goal.
For the Wild, Mikko Koivu has been the best forward in the series, and not just because he had a goal in each of the four games so far. Brian Rolston has been similarly impressive, including when he beat defenseman Jeff Finger to the puck to negate an icing and set up Pierre-Marc Bouchard for the overtime goal in Game 3. (The negative aspect of that goal is that it will be an exhibit in stubborn general managers' stance against no-touch icing.)
The Avalanche have used the pairing of Adam Foote and Kurt Sauer against Gaborik and his various linemates, and Foote has been effective in his return to a Colorado sweater -- and the role he filled in the first nine seasons of the team's stay in Denver. For a time during his run in Columbus, it seemed his game might be archaic in the new NHL, but now that the happy medium has been found -- by both players and referees -- he can get the job done.
Niklas Backstrom didn't play the third period in Game 4, but he certainly wasn't the Wild's problem. He mostly has been up to the task in the Minnesota net. And Jose Theodore has been good for Colorado, allowing only one groaner in the first four games.
So where does the series go from here -- other than to St. Paul?
Perhaps remembering Avalanche winger Ian Laperriere's blatantly calculated, gutter-level, inexcusable and counterproductive "message-sending" drawing of Gaborik into his first NHL fight at the end of overtime in the teams' regular-season finale April 6, the Wild spent the late stages of Game 4 trying to send out almost as many messages as the spammer asking you to help him smuggle $3.2 million out of an impoverished nation. (One of the funny things about this sport is that each team always can go back one step further, finding that "they started it" moment.)
That doesn't mean much, unless one or both of the teams gets caught up in responding and continuing the thread, losing poise when it matters, taking stupid penalties and otherwise being distracted.
This has every appearance of being a seven-game series, and that's not just an acknowledgment of the mathematical realities.
These teams are that evenly matched.
And don't bet against a Game 7 overtime.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."
We're at the seminal point of the season when the stars really shine. Well, not so fast. The Wild and Avalanche are tied 2-2 in this grueling best-of-seven series. And, the teams' respective offensive studs, Marian Gaborik and Paul Stastny, have been held pointless.