The Minnesota Wild open the first round of the playoffs Thursday against the dynamic and Central Division surprise Colorado Avalanche. The Avs have flourished this season behind a cast of budding superstars and a fiery coach in Patrick Roy. The question now is how this potent team will fair in the playoffs against the more seasoned Wild who have a worse record, but boast more experience at nearly every position.
For the Minnesota Wild, this year’s matchup against the young Avalanche looks much better than last year against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Minnesota certainly has the upper-hand as far as maturity in the forward department. The likes of Zach Parise and gritty Matt Cooke should be able to guide some of the younger players on the roster with a sense of calm as they have both seen the ups and downs of the playoffs.
Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson have gelled nicely on the second line recently, with Pominville getting his 30th goal in the team’s final game. Their production is going to be vital moving forward and the return of Mikael Granlund will help. After recovering from a concussion for the last few games, Granlund returns to a line that has been clicking of late and will be expected to pick up right where he left off.
For Colorado, the biggest question mark is with Matt Duchene’s health. He suffered a knee injury late in the season and uncertainty surrounds his return. Be certain that if he is able to play at any point during the series, Colorado’s chances of winning significantly increase as he was the top scorer with 70 points in 71 games for the Avs.
Despite losing its top forward, the Avs possess star-power behind Duchene. Gabriel Landeskog (26-39–65) and Nathan MacKinnon are on the way to being premier forwards in the NHL. MacKinnon, who is merely 18 years old, amassed 63 points and will almost certainly win the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.
Other forwards include Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly, both of who produced at least 60 points during the regular season.
Minnesota possesses one thing that the Avs do not, and that is a superstar shutdown defenseman in Ryan Suter. Expect to see Suter playing plenty of 30-minute games in the playoffs. He averaged 29:24 in ice time during the season, so it is nothing new.
The younger Wild defensemen better have their heads on a swivel and skates sharpened in order to keep up with the speedy Avs. Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon have taken huge strides this season and will be counted on to play huge minutes in the series.
Colorado may lack the big name defensemen in comparison to other teams around the league, but they were an integral part in the Avs grabbing the 2nd seed. They ranked 14th in goals against per game with 2.6 and surprised many with their performance.
Erik Johnson is beginning to play like the first overall pick that he was in 2006 and Tyson Barrie, a relative nobody when the season began, has emerged as a quality offensive defenseman.
The only missing link in the group is Jan Hejda. The 35-year-old veteran of the group was hurt in the Avs final game of the year and his status is uncertain. He provides stability to this young cast of defensemen and his return would be more than welcomed mid-series.
Minnesota will be rolling with Ilya Bryzgalov for the playoffs after his stellar play late in the season. He is possibly the driving force if the Wild are to pull the first round upset it desires. His 7-1-3 record and 2.12 GAA were unexpected after he was picked up just prior to the trade deadline. It will be interesting to see if that performance carries over to the playoffs.
As great as Bryzgalov has been since taking over the starting job, Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov has done it all season. His 41 wins lead the NHL and .927 SV% was third-best. Solving Varlamov will be the key to the series for Minnesota as it already struggles to score goals.
The way the team has been playing lately, it’s hard to believe that Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo was on the hot seat a few times this season. With more star-power at his disposal, Yeo has no excuse in these playoffs. He is the youngest coach in the NHL at 40 and has a chance to solidify his tenure with the Wild if it makes a deep playoff run.
Patrick Roy has made the difficult transition from player to coach and is a leading candidate for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best coach. His tirades at the beginning of the year have subsided and he has guided the Avs to a far better record than anyone expected. As a first year coach, Roy will look to establish his young team as a force for years to come.
Advantage: Slight Colorado
This has been a popular upset pick for many experts. The Wild possess the talent to skate with the youthful Avalanche and have far more experience in the playoffs. Much of the pressure is on Ilya Bryzgalov and whether he will perform in his first significant starting role since his time with the Flyers. Unfortunately, the light will be too bright and his performance will be sub-par. A 7th or 8th seed will pull an upset in the playoffs, but it will not be here.