The Minnesota Wild will face the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the first game taking place on Thursday in Colorado. Both teams enter the playoffs playing their best hockey of the season. The Avalanche has been one of the best teams in the NHL in the past month and their offense has provided fits for opposing teams.
This series should be a good one and it will be tight. I don’t think either team is the overwhelming favorite but Colorado is the favored team. Do I think that the Wild can win this series? Below I examine both teams’ strengths and weaknesses. You’ll have to find out what my pick is at the end of this Stanley Cup Playoffs preview.
Home Ice Advantage
The Colorado Avalanche won the head to head regular season series with the Minnesota Wild winning four out of five of those games. Before you think that Colorado has a great advantage due to winning the series, it is important to note that Minnesota won their only game against the Avalanche in Colorado (in a shootout). One of their other two losses also ended in a shootout.
All the games between these two teams have been close games. There weren’t any blowouts. In fact two of the five games went to a shootout, one game was a 2-1 victory by Colorado and the other two games were won by Colorado by scores of 3-1 and 4-2.
These two teams haven’t faced each other in a couple of months and since both teams are playing their best hockey entering the series, it’s hard to tell if the head to head series provides the Avalanche with a great advantage over the Minnesota Wild.
Team Defense and Goaltending
This is stating the obvious but goaltending and defense are extremely important in the playoffs. Good goaltending and defense can win teams a playoff series, especially being able to clear the front of the net and get the puck out of the defensive zone efficiently and quickly. The Wild will have to be dominant in this area, since Colorado had one the best offenses in the NHL’s regular season. Colorado is ranked 4th when it comes to goals per game, so they will be tough to beat.
Minnesota’s defense allowed the sixth fewest goals per game in the regular season. The team’s ability to clear the puck and make smart decisions in their end of the ice proved to be a difference maker down the stretch. I think this part of the game will continue to be strong.
So what about goaltending? As mentioned in a previous article, Ilya Bryzgalov has been stellar between the pipes. He kept the Minnesota Wild in games at the end of the season. His good goaltending allowed Minnesota to mount comebacks, none greater than their shootout victory over the NHL’s best team; the Boston Bruins.
Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov has played well all season long and I’m sure his best hockey will be played in the playoffs. I don’t think either team has the edge in goaltending.
Advantage: Wild due to their strength in defense.
As mentioned earlier, Colorado has a very good offense. They were ranked 4th when it came to goals scored per game. This is the reason why the Wild can’t afford to try and match the Avalanche in offense. If they do, they will be going away from their game plan. Their defenseman would have to pinch in and they would pay a steep price for playing that style of hockey.
The Wild had one of the worst offenses in the NHL, and were ranked 25th when it came to goals per game scored. The Wild do well when they play a gritty style of hockey which includes putting bodies in front of the net and having great checking (forcing turnovers) in the offensive zone.
If the Wild stick to this style of offense they will have a shot at the upset and at the very least they will keep games close, giving the team a shot at stealing a game in Colorado.
Power Play & Power Kill (Special Teams)
Along with good defense and goaltending, a good power play can help a team steal a game or two in a series. If a game is close and a team needs a goal, being successful on the Power Play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs can be the difference in winning or losing games. Fortunately for the Avalanche they enter the playoffs having had the 6th ranked power play in the regular season.
Having a great power play to go along with one of highest ranked offenses in the NHL is particularly potent. This is one area that might be the difference maker for the Avalanche winning the series.
The reason that I’m saying that is because the Minnesota Wild was ranked 26th in penalty killing. The Wild will have to be extremely disciplined and not take foolish penalties or find a way to stop a great Colorado Avalanche power play.
While the Wild only have the 17th ranked power play, the Avalanche are ranked 24th in the penalty killing department. If the Wild can find a way to take advantage of the Avalanche’s weakness in defending the power play, the Wild might be able pull off a few surprises.
I think the game might be won or lost in this area. We’ll have to see which team’s specialty teams come to play in this series.
Advantage: Slight edge to Colorado.
It would look like the Colorado Avalanche have the clear cut advantage in this series. I don’t necessarily think that it’s that black and white. The two areas that I think are most important in the playoffs are defense/goaltending and special teams. The Wild clearly have the better defense entering into the series. They relied on this defense to get them to the playoffs.
The Avalanche does have the advantage, just slightly in special teams, so I think this will be a close series. I think that this series has the potential to have multiple overtime games and that’s where Colorado’s superb offense might be able to breakdown the Wild’s defense.
Prediction: Colorado wins in 7.