Playoffs? Playoffs?!?! Its the little sound bite that will haunt former NFL football coach Jim Mora for the rest of his days. But seriously, we are talking about the playoffs. It was something that some Wild fans, including myself were unsure if they would really happen as the team started another small slide that saw its cushion of points holding it securely in the wildcard spot disappear. Honestly, how many teams can you name that had 4 different starting goaltenders over the course of its season stay viable for the playoffs? Meanwhile, on the other side of this article is the impressive performance of the Colorado Avalanche, a team that was so awful last season that it won the draft lottery and got the 1st Overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry draft to go on and win the Central Division crown instead of pre-season front runners Chicago and St. Louis. Many felt the Avalanche’s hot start would fade but it never really did and they stayed consistent and took advantage of some inconsistent play by the Blackhawks and Blues and thus Colorado would draw the wildcard, Minnesota in the opening round of the playoffs.
Minnesota was more of a roller coaster, with plenty of highs and lows where scoring at times was either feast or famine. The pressure is still on Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo and General Manager Chuck Fletcher to not just get this team, with the 9th highest payroll in the NHL, to the playoffs but actually win and advance to the next round or farther. So the minimal expectation of making to the playoffs has been accomplished but does this team have what it takes to beat a powerful Avalanche squad? Why do I feel I’ve talked about this story before somewhere? So like any good boxing tilt, there is the tale of the tape. A sort of side-by-side statistical run down to give fans an idea of just how they match up against one another. So how do they match up based on the regular season?
Tale of the Tape:
Minnesota Wild Colorado Avalanche
Goals For: 2.43 Goals For: 2.99
Goals Against: 2.42 Goals Against: 2.63
Power Play: 17.9% Power Play: 19.8%
Penalty Kill: 78.8% Penalty Kill: 80.7%
Team Faceoff %: 50.9% Team Faceoff %: 49.5%
Top 5 Scorers: Top 5 Scorers:
Pominville (30G) 60pts *Duchene (23G) 70pts
Parise (29G) 56pts Landeskog (26G) 65pts
Koivu (11G) 54pts O’Reilly (28G) 64pts
Moulson (23G) 51pts MacKinnon (24G) 63pts
Suter (8G) 43pts Stastny (25G) 60pts
Top 3 PIM’s: Top 3 PIM’s:
Stoner ~ 84 PIM’s McLeod ~ 122 PIM’s
Brodziak ~ 61 PIM’s Bordeleau ~ 115 PIM’s
Prosser ~ 58 PIM’s Landeskog ~ 71 PIM’s
Top Goaltender: Top Goaltender:
Bryzgalov ~ 2.12GAA .911%SP Varlamov ~ 2.41GAA .927%SP
Harding – Illness Tanguay – Hip (surgery)
Backstrom – Abdominal surgery Duchene – Bruised knee
Zucker – Knee (surgery) Mitchell – Headaches
Ballard – Groin Barrie – Upper Body
Brodziak – ??? Sarich – Back Spasms
Kuemper – Lower Body
Granlund – Upper Body
Regular season series summary: Colorado won 4-0-1
Series Schedule: (all times listed in Central Standard Time)
Game #1: 4/17 Wild @ Avalanche ~ 8:30PM TSN/CNBC
Game #2: 4/19 Wild @ Avalanche ~ 8:30PM TSN/NBC Sports
Game #3: 4/21 Avalanche @ Wild ~ 6:00PM TSN/NHL Network
Game #4: 4/24 Avalanche @ Wild ~ 8:30PM TSN2/CNBC
Game #5: 4/26 Wild @ Avalanche ~ TBD
Game #6: 4/28 Avalanche @ Wild ~ TBD
Game #7: 4/30 Wild @ Avalanche ~ TBD
Why the Avalanche will win: As I said before, I almost feel as though this story has been told before. As was the case back during the memorable 2003 playoff run, Minnesota comes into the playoffs as the 7th seed while a division winning Colorado team comes in as the 2nd seed. As was the case back then, the Avalanche were uber powerful offensive team against the defensive-minded Wild with one of the weaker offenses in the NHL. The one reverse of the series is the fact the Avalanche are as good as they are with the league’s 28th most expensive payroll. So instead of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, and Rob Blake standing in the way of the Wild, its Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Erik Johnson hoping to overpower Minnesota. Duchene is still questionable for Thursday’s game as he is still suffering the effects of a bruised knee. He is a tremendously dynamic player whose deft vision makes him one of the best playmakers in the league as well as being a deadly scorer when he takes the initiative. If he can’t make it back in time for the series, the Avalanche will have to regroup offensively. Fortunately for Colorado, they have more than enough firepower to make his loss not all that big of a deal. Ryan O’Reilly is an outstanding two-way forward that has knack for scoring big goals and has been a terror for the Wild ever since he joined the league. Landeskog is basically the reincarnation of Peter Forsberg; a strong Swedish forward who plays a grinding game and drives opponents nuts with his strength on the puck. MacKinnon, a shoe in for the Calder trophy as the league’s top rookie will be another major scoring threat the Avalanche will look to for offense. Toss in P.A. Parenteau and Jamie McGinn as secondary scorers and you have lots of match up problems for the Wild. Minnesota can also expect Cody McLeod and especially former Wild draft pick Patrick Bordeleau (who is said to hate the Wild according to chief Avalanche apologist Adrian Dater) to be twin wrecking balls on the 4th line, looking to pummel Minnesota’s forwards and draw some cheap retaliation penalties.
On the blueline the Avalanche have a mobile defensive corps led by their workhorse Jan Hejda who provides big minutes and is a great shut down stay at home defenseman. He has demonstrated himself to have been very effective at standing up Wild forwards and neutralizing them since he joined the franchise last season. Erik Johnson has quietly had a very solid season and can provide offense as well as physical play in Colorado’s own end. The x-factor is the injury status for Tyson Barrie who moves the puck and often starts the breakout for the Avalanche attack. If Barrie can come back (he’s listed as probable) from an upper body injury the Avalanche have a defenseman that can help thwart the Wild’s forecheck.
Between the pipes its all about Vezina Trophy candidate Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov has been rock solid for the Avalanche all season long and now he’s finally ready to shine against a team that must be considered to be a true contender this season. In the playoffs, he’s still mostly unproven but he is a goaltender that can go into games confident his team will score at least 3 goals and that gives him a nice margin of error.
On special teams the Avalanche are fairly solid on both the power play and penalty kill. Their lethal power play will pose lots of problems for a penalty kill that has struggled all season long. All of these intangibles, including Colorado’s youthful exuberance will be simply too much for the Wild to handle.
Why the Wild will win: Not a lot of people thought the Wild were going to put up much of a fight back in 2003 either. Afterall, the Wild were one of the Cinderella clubs along with Anaheim that season. Yet as fairly mild as the Wild are offensively in comparison to the rest of the league back then, Minnesota’s attack features more depth and potential then that plucky 2003 squad. They lack an elite finisher like Marian Gaborik was, but they have Zach Parise, Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson that are reasonable scorers when given the opportunity. Parise brings big-game swagger and Pominville has been clutch all season long for the Wild. Captain Mikko Koivu has been far more assertive the last 15 games of the season and the team will need him to finish as well as set up teammates. Its the secondary scoring that is more of a concern as Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreitter, and Justin Fontaine round out a youthful group that can be effective on the forecheck. An x-factor for the Wid is slick playmaking center Mikael Granlund who is slowly progressing towards playing again after being felled by an upper body injury on March 31st. If Granlund can’t make it back, the Wild have a nice backup plan in fan favorite, Erik Haula. Haula has been solid in a 2nd line role, using his terrific speed effectively to create scoring chances. On the 3rd and 4th line, the Wild need grit and energy from veterans Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak, Cody McCormick and Stephane Veilleux and they will have to raise their game to stifle the Avalanche’s speed, and keep Colorado bottled up in its own end. Experience in big games is really the Wild’s biggest advantage over Colorado.
Defensively, it is all about Ryan Suter. Suter, a Norris Trophy candidate, again was the NHL’s leader in minutes played per game at a shade underneath 30 minutes per contest. He is on the ice for every important shift and in the playoffs his average ice time could go up to 34-35 minutes, and he will be tasked with trying to shut down Colorado’s potent offense. Trying to support Suter will be the diminutive Jared Spurgeon who has been both good and bad this season as well as Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin who has also battled inconsistency. If any of these other defenseman have a bad game, it could spell disaster for the Wild. What they do bring is good mobility and the ability to start the Wild’s counter attack into the Colorado zone. Clayton Stoner will have to provide the sandpaper to what is mostly a pretty soft Wild blueline. That being said, the Wild blueline must be more ornery near the Minnesota crease and at the very least they must tie up Avalanche forwards looking for rebounds if the Wild are to have any chance at all.
Between the pipes is the biggest question mark as it has been most of the season. Injuries have forced the team to start 4 different goaltenders this season. At this point, Ilya Bryzgalov is the default starting goaltender. Josh Harding is back and practicing but he hasn’t played since January since making an adjustment to his treatment of his multiple sclerosis. With Harding’s status still very much uncertain, the team will have John Curry backing up Bryzgalov. Darcy Kuemper appears to be on the shelf for the time being as he battles some upper body injury he sustained at a pre-game skate prior to a game in Los Angeles in the closing weeks of the regular season. At times Bryzgalov has been outstanding, absorbing rebounds and coming up with timely saves. He has playoff experience and has played in big games so the pressure of performing at a crucial time is nothing new to him. Yet an ugly performance in the last game of the season, where he gave up 4 goals on shots from the point may be the cause for some concern. Expect the Avalanche to want to test him in this area right away. If he can hold up, the Wild have a goaltender that can steal them a game or two.
This is an area that has been kind of disappointing throughout most of the season. Back in 2003, it was the team’s power play (which ironically had been awful in the regular season) that caught fire in the playoffs and was an x-factor that gave the pop-gun attack enough punch to win games, but in 2014 Minnesota has been rather inconsistent. At times, the power play is slow and waits far too long for the perfect play instead of just working pucks on the net. When its at its best, its passing and shooting often. The power play lacks a deadly shooter from the point, but that doesn’t mean it still should only dish the puck around instead of directing some shots on goal. The penalty kill is probably of greater concern for the Wild as it too has been Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde; mostly Hyde. When the penalty kill has been solid, it pressure the puck carrier well and prevents shooters from having open looks at the net, when it struggles it is slow to react and can’t eliminate forwards near the blue paint and pucks end up in the back of the net. This must improve by a considerable margin if Minnesota is to have any chance at all.
The Wild’s biggest advantage is its superior veteran experience. Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Matt Cooke, Ilya Bryzgalov, Jason Pominville and Mikko Koivu all know what must be done to win big games. The Wild must avoid getting into an up and down track meet with the Avalanche; and would be best served working the puck deep and keeping Colorado bottled up in its own zone. Yet that will take a full-team effort. The team cannot afford any passengers or anything less than maximum effort if it wants to upset the Avalanche.
Prediction: Colorado wins 4 games to 2. I know this won’t make me popular with many Wild fans, but objectively speaking, the Wild have had a real hard time with Colorado this season. The Avalanche are fast, and while the team will be able to keep up the pace better by not dressing slower forwards like Dany Heatley the team still does not possess the scoring depth of Colorado. There is more than a little irony that 11 years later after that memorable run, that Patrick Roy is now the head coach where Wild fans relish the fact current team consultant Andrew Brunette ended his career with that epic Game 7 goal. Roy is still as cocky as he was when he was tending goal for the Avs, but whether you love him or hate him, its tough to dispute his results between the pipes and now behind the bench. While Minnesota has shown down the stretch it can beat some of the tougher teams in the league, but I am not sure they can be consistent enough to win a series against Colorado. Of course, myself and many others didn’t think that would happen in 2003 either.