The Colorado Avalanche (52-22-8) look to continue their surprising season of success, facing the Minnesota Wild (43-27-12), a team looking to make it through to the second round for the first time in over a decade.
#2 Colorado Avalanche vs. #7 Minnesota Wild
Season Series: Colorado, 4-0-1
After a 2013 season that saw the Avalanche finish last in the former Northwest Division, regarded as one of the weakest divisions in the league, changes were afoot. The Avalanche brought in two franchise legends: Patrick Roy became Head Coach, while Joe Sakic joined the club as an executive.
The Avalanche were hot out of the gate, winning 14 of their first 16 games of the season. Their defensive core, which was regarded as the club’s biggest “what if?” entering the season, turned the Avs into one of the NHL’s top five defensive teams early in the year.
The Avalanche continued to roll, and beat top teams in their own Central Division, winning the season series against the Blackhawks, and pulling off impressive victories along the way: most recently, a 4-0 thumping of the St. Louis Blues, the top seed in the Division, on April 5th.
The Avalanche sent four players to Russia: Paul Stasny, Matt Duchene, Semyon Varlamov, and captain Gabriel Landeskog. After the season resumed, the Avalanche made a formidable push for the post-season, finishing the month of March with a 9-4-1 record. The Avalanche come into the playoffs on a two-game losing streak, after dropping decisions to the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks.
Nathan MacKinnon, first overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, made his debut, and never looked back. MacKinnon is now an easy vote for the Calder Trophy, after amassing 63 points.
Backstop: Semyon Varlamov has become one of the NHL’s elite net-minders during the course of the 2013-14 season. His .927% save percentage is third-ranked in the entire NHL, and his 41 wins are the most of any goaltender this season.
X-Factor: Playoff Experience. Out of the Avalanche’s top three scorers this season, there is a combined 12 games of playoff experience. On the Wild, that number is 119. Semyon Varlamov has 19 games under his belt, but will the Avalanche succeed under the pressure that is playoff hockey?
Ex-Jets: None. Cody McLeod is from Binscarth, Manitoba.
The Wild entered the 2013-14 season fresh off their first playoff berth in five seasons, but were quickly eliminated by the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks. With a re-tooled roster, the Wild looked to contend in the incredibly tough Central Division this season.
Minnesota was led offensively by the newly acquired Jason Pominville, finishing with 60 points in all 82 games. Captain America, Zach Parise, wasn’t far behind, with 56 points. Parise actually had the slowest season since his rookie year in 2008. However, the Wild’s top line remained dangerous, with captain Mikko Koivu scoring 54 points. The Wild’s depth includes Matt Moulson, who was brought in from the Buffalo Sabres at the Trade Deadline, and second-year center Mikael Granlund, who impressed with 33 assists on the season.
On defense, the Wild’s top gun is the other $98 million man, 2013 Norris Trophy finalist Ryan Suter. Suter averages nearly 2 minutes more Time On Ice each game than the next closest player, Erik Karlsson. Suter also matched a career-high goal total, with eight. The Wild have seen solid defense from Jared Spurgeon, 20-year old Jonas Brodin, Keith Ballard, and 6-foot-4 Clayton Stoner.
The Wild have gone through a quartet of goaltenders this season, and no one league-wide did better than Josh Harding. Harding led the league in both GAA (1.65) and Save Percentage (.933%), but has been limited to only 29 games due to his battle with MS. The Wild have also seen injuries to Niklas Backstrom, so Darcy Kuemper and the recently acquired Ilya Bryzgalov lead Minnesota into the playoffs.
The Wild have only made it past the quarterfinals once in their team history (2003), when they were swept by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the Western Conference final. The Wild have a 35% winning percentage in the playoffs over their five appearances.
Backstop: Ilya Bryzgalov (12-9-8, .909% save percentage, 2.68 GAA) enters the playoffs as one of the league’s hottest goaltenders, posting a 7-1-3 record since being acquired by the Wild. Darcy Kuemper will be the Wild’s back-up, and started one game in the 2013 playoffs against Chicago.
X-Factor: Forward depth: Will the newly acquired Matt Moulson produce in his first playoff run, after playing with three different teams in the regular season? Will the pressure be no problem for Granlund and the Wild’s relatively young forward group?
Ex-Jets: Dany Heatley (2001-2004)
Prediction Sure To Go Wrong:
The Avalanche have been consistent all season, and the change of pace from the regular-season to the playoffs will slow them down, but not stop them. The Wild keep the series close, but Colorado wins in game seven, off a Ryan O’Reilly series-clinching goal.
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