Minnesota Wild Begin Their First Round Thursday in Colorado
The Wild finished the regular season strong with a record of 6-3-1 in their final ten games. Perhaps the only team in the NHL to close out the season hotter was their first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs opponent the Colorado Avalanche whose final record (52-22-8) 112 points was good enough to win the first Central Division title. The Avalanche went on a remarkable run of victories to bypass the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues with a 7-1-2 record in their last 10 games of the regular season.
The Wild had 2013-14 season series record versus the Avalanche of 1-3-1 (0-2-0 at Xcel Energy Center, 1-1-1 at Colorado) with their only win coming on 12/14/2013 in 2-1 shoot out victory in Colorado. The Wild have surprisingly outshot the Avalanche 154-123 this season but were outscored 16-11 in 5 regular season matchups. The Avalanche’s star netminder Semyon Varlamov beat the Wild 3 of 4 opportunities and is arguably playing the best hockey of his career which is sure to be a primary storyline in this series.
Both of these teams have significant injuries to key contributors, for the Wild the health of Mikael Granlund, Darcy Kuemper, Josh Harding, and Keith Ballard will be a focal point during this first round series. For the Avalanche they could be without two Top 6 centermen in Matt Duchene for the entire series while John Mitchell could possibly return by game 3. Also banged up for the Avalanche right are defensemen Jan Hejda and Tyson Barrie although both are expected to play.
What Wild fans Need to Know about the Avalanche
This team gets attention for their high flying high octane offensive ability but the true difference from drafting 1st overall last season to winning the newly formed Central Division has been the strong play of their defensive corps and goaltender duo. The hiring of hall of fame netminder Patrick Roy to be the bench boss of this young talented group has empowered their backend play which lacked direction and attitude last season. Roy’s arrival has meant a complete attitude and demeanor overhaul for the Avalanche that has translated to victories and confidence from a roster that is not much different in makeup from last year.
Most notably the addition of 2013 1st overall draft pick Nathan Mackinnon has changed the dynamics of the Avalanche offense and Top 6 as his speed and hands have immediately translated to scoring and playmaking ability that has propelled Colorado this year. Mackinnon will be replacing Duchene on the top line at the center position which will be an interesting matchup against the Wild’s defensive minded 3rd line centered by Kyle Brodziak with Matt Cooke and Nino Niederreiter on the wings. Mackinnon will be centering a line with big skilled wingers Ryan O’Reilly and PA Parenteau.
Colorado is led by their Kid Captain Gabriel Landeskog who scored 26 goals and had 65 points this season. The Avalanche young core of forwards (Duchene, Landeskog, O’Reilly, and Mackinnon) combined to score 101 goals and 262 points total during the 2013-14 NHL regular season. The next closest contributor to that group was impending unrestricted free agent veteran center Paul Stastny who enjoyed strong season scoring 25 goals and 60 points.
The Avalanche will look to use their speed and physical play to establish offensive zone time and extended offensive possession. The Avalanche feature rugged net front presence wingers Parenteau and Jamie McGinn who will look to setup in the dirty areas in and around the net against the Wild’s undersized defensive corps. The Avalanche scores from the blue line in particular young defender Tyson Barrie scored 13 goals during the 2013-14. Erik Johnson a Bloomington native and former 1st overall pick has fulfilled his potential this year serving as true top pairing two way defender under the coaching of the fiery Roy.
What the Wild Must Do to Win the Series
For the Wild to advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs they will need to limit the Avalanche’s ability to generate scoring opportunities on the rush contesting every pass and shot. When the Wild played their best hockey this year it was as a result of suffocating team defense limiting opponent’s premium opportunities. This series will be highly competitive and although the Wild has at different times this season shown they have improved their ability to generate secondary scoring, the key to victory will be to stifle the high flying ultra-talented young forwards of the Avalanche.
The return “Finnish Jesus” Mikael Granlund from a concussion will be an important storyline in this series for both teams. Previous to a hard hit that caused him to miss the final week and half of the regular season the young centermen was enjoying a breaking out season and huge momentum swing from his strong performance in the Sochi Olympics. Granlund will center the Wild’s second line with talented veteran wingers Matthew Moulson and Jason Pominville who have developed very strong chemistry playing with another young Finn center Erik Haula while Granlund has been out of the lineup.
Getting Granlund back creates a butterfly effect for the Wild’s line combinations and roles throughout their forward lines. The top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, and Charlie Coyle has been carrying the Wild during their extremely successful final 10 games of the regular season that saw them winning 6 of their last 7 games. The play of Haula during that time was extremely important to both earning a playoff appearance but also earning himself the confidence of the coaching staff. Haula almost assuredly will return to the 4th line with Granlund back in the lineup but his speed, skill, and energetic two-way play will create mis-matches and opportunities for Yeo to catch the Avalanche with lesser skilled personnel on the ice.
The Wild’s defensive corps look to be near 100% healthy to begin this first round series which is extremely important because they will asked to stifle and limit a high octane Avalanche offense. Getting Clayton Stoner back from a knee injury adds size and toughness on the backend for the Wild it will need against an Avalanche team that plays a physical aggressive fore checking style. Stoner will be matched up with both Nate Prosser and Jon Blum during this series making his play specifically in the defensive zone that much more important.
The play of the top pairing for the Wild will be pivotal in this series because the Avalanche were able to generate premium scoring chances in front of the net against the mostly finesse pairing of Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon. Both of the Wild’s top pairing defenders are excellent with their skating, positioning, stick skills, passing, and awareness but they both struggle to clear the net front consistently which can allow opponents to camp out and generate multiple scoring chances.
Spurgeon has improved his play this season especially in the defensive zone where despite his slight stature I believe him to have been the Wild’s best defender. Spurgeon has also activated himself more frequently during the last 10 games which is an important element for the Wild as he is able to carry the puck and generate offensive zone possession and production with his speed and skilled hands. Spurgeon’s ability to create with the puck and generate offense is what balances out his limitations due his slight build and he will need to get started early on in this series if the Wild is going to steal a game or two at the Pepsi Center before return home.
The elephant in the room is the Wild’s crazy string of injuries to their goaltenders this season that has lead us to the franchise’s playoff fortunes depending on Ilya Bryzgalov to write a story of redemption with his play. Bryzgalov was outstanding in the final month of the season for the Wild filling in for rookie netminder Darcy Kuemper who has been unavailable to the team with an undisclosed injury for just over two weeks.
Even now it is now clear if Kuemper will be available during this first round series versus the Avalanche which is a shame given how pivotal the 23 year old backstop was to the Wild earning a playoff appearance this year. If Bryzgalov can continue his empowered play the absence of Kuemper and Josh Harding for that matter will be of little consequence and relevance but this Avalanche team can light the lamp and it could mean that whatever confidence Bryzgalov has generated with his resurgence with the Wild could prove fleeting.
MY THW colleagues tackled the Wild goaltending situation early this month, you can find their takes here:
Tonight will be a huge measure stick for what to expect from this first round playoffs series against two teams that don’t like each very much. The Avalanche have adopted the phrase #WhyNotUs for their current season and playoff push. The Wild has to provide a strong statement tonight with their play to answer that question for their former North West Division now Central Division rivals. The State of Hockey will be glued to the screen tonight looking for a game one victory.
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