After winning the Central Division, the Colorado Avalanche managed to secure the second seed in the Western Conference and they will start their journey to return to the Stanley Cup against the seventh-ranked Minnesota Wild at the Pepsi Center.
There’s no question that the Avalanche are riding a huge wave of momentum going into the playoffs. Patrick Roy’s tenure as the Avs’ head coach generated several doubts prior to the start to the season due to his inexperience; but Colorado has responded to Roy fast and furiously, and had a great regular season because of it. The Avalanche finished second last in the enitre NHL in 2012-13 season. Their ability go from second last to winners of the Central Division – a division that included teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues to name a few – makes them a team to look in this year’s playoffs.
They will have their hands full going up against the Minnesota Wild. While it’s true that Minnesota battled plenty of inconsistencies throughout the season, and they also have a huge question mark between the pipes, what they do have is several strong players on both ends of the ice that are legitimate differnece makers. The Wild got here by clinching the first wild card spot in the Western Conference and they cannot be taken lightly as they have the tools to pull off a first round upset.
The Avs owned the season series, going 3-1-1 against their Central Division rival. There’s no reason to think they won’t make it out of the first-round this time but both sides have strengths, weaknesses and key players that could propel them to the victory.
The Avalanche have several important players that will be relyed on to propel them to a first round victory over Minnesota. Their two key players this year are rookie sensation Nathan MacKinnon and goaltender Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov carries a .927 save percentage into the playoffs, including a .933 mark at even strength and he has played well enough this season to be considered the most valuable player for the Avalanhce. In fact, Varmalov has been the main reason why Colorado has been so successful despite being out-shot consistently throughout the regular season.
The Wild, on the other hand, have two key players that need to carry the team throughout the postseason: Ryan Suter and Zach Parise. Both players are leaders in their respective zones – Parise as the team’s main forward and Suter as the defensive backbone – and the Wild will only go as far as these two take them. Other players worth keeping an eye on are Jason Pominville and Mikko Koivu.
The Avalanche’s biggest issue might be the lack of experience. Aside from Paul Stastny, there aren’t many experienced players in the roster and two of the main players – MacKinnon and Varmalov – don’t have many games under their belt. Their undisputed star is Matt Duchene and he will also be out at least in the first few games against the Wild so it remains to be seen how this young roster can adjust to the intensity and defensive systems that come into play during the postseason.
There’s no secret that Minnesota’s biggest issue is located between the pipes. With Josh Harding questionable at all times due to his illness, Ilya Bryzgalov and Darcy Kuemper are the two options available for the Wild. Bryzgalov is likely to start in Game 1 but he can either be dominant or a non-factor. Considering that they will be going against a strong offense from Colorado, Bryzgalov needs to be at his best to give Minnesota a chance early in this series.
Colorado has is a strong unit collectively on the offensive side of the puck. The Avs have the fifth-best powerplay with a success rate close to 20% percent and they need to bring this success into the playoffs. The Wild, on the other hand, are 27th in penalty-killing with less than 80% of success. So the Avalanche will need to take use their special teams advantage if they are too find success.
The first two games will be played in Colorado and the next two will be in Minnesota. If needed, the fifth game will be at the Pepsi Center, the sixth will be at the Xcel Energy Center and the decisive one will see the Avalanche having home-ice advantage.
Avalanche come through in six games and take the series 4-2.
All images sourced from Getty Images.