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Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Colorado vs. Minnesota
By Michael Rushton, NHL Contributing Editor
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 55-22-8 (2nd seed, West)
2013 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify
(Sports Network) - The Colorado Avalanche figured to be a team on the upswing after landing talented center Nathan MacKinnon with the top overall pick of the 2013 draft and hiring former goaltender great Patrick Roy as their head coach.
An outstanding season by netminder Semyon Varlamov expedited the process and his Vezina Trophy-worthy season -- as well as a late collapse by the St. Louis Blues -- helped the Avs win their first division title since 2002-03.
Varlamov led the NHL with 41 victories, breaking Roy's single-season franchise mark set in 2000-01. He also surpassed his head coach for the most home victories by an Avalanche goaltender in a season with 24.
All will be for naught though if Varlamov's postseason debut with Colorado goes sour. He has not played a playoff game since 2010 with the Washington Capitals and in 19 total games of postseason experience, the Russian is 10-9 with a 2.49 goals against average and .915 save percentage.
There may be some additional pressure on Varlamov and the defense as forward Matt Duchene may miss the entire series with a bruised knee suffered on March 29. Duchene still led the Avs with 47 assists and 70 points, but Colorado did manage to go 5-1-2 down the stretch without him.
The Avalanche snapped a three-year playoff drought by matching a franchise record with 52 victories and setting another mark with 26 road wins. Their 112 points were good for second-most in the club's single-season history.
Balanced scoring was key to that success as the Avs featured five different 20-goal scorers -- just missing out on another with Jamie McGinn's 19 tallies -- and those five players all reached at least 60 points as well.
Captain Gabriel Landeskog was second to Duchene with 65 points and Ryan O'Reilly set a career-high with 28 goals to lead the team. He was a force on the power play with nine goals, one ahead of MacKinnon for the club high.
MacKinnon is likely headed towards a Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie after he led all freshman skaters with 63 points, 39 assists and eight power- play tallies. He also tied for the lead among rookies with 24 goals and five game-winning markers.
Colorado has to be pleased with how its youthful core performed alongside veterans such as Paul Stastny (25 goals, 60 points), P.A. Parenteau, who had 33 points in 55 games after missing time with a knee injury, and John Mitchell.
While Colorado finished in the top five on the power play, its penalty kill was just 24th at 80.7 percent and the team as a whole is weak on defense.
Erik Johnson did enjoy a solid season while averaging 23 minutes per game as he matched a career high with 39 points, a career-high 30 of those assists.
Defenseman Tyson Barrie scored a number of clutch goals from the blue line as five of his 13 tallies were game-winners. His goal total was the most by a Colorado blueliner since John-Michael Liles had 14 in 2006-07.
In all, Colorado got 48 goals from its defense, but the club lacks a true shutdown defender. It doesn't help that Barrie, Cory Sarich and Jan Hejda all enter the series a bit banged up.
MINNESOTA WILD (1st wild card, West)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 43-27-12
2013 PLAYOFFS: Lost to Chicago 4-1 in conference quarterfinals
(Sports Network) - Make it two playoffs in two seasons since the Minnesota Wild broke the bank to sign both forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter.
The Wild snapped a four-year postseason drought by earning the eighth seed a season ago, only to fall in five games to the Chicago Blackhawks.
This season, Minnesota racked up impressive totals of 43 wins and 98 points -- a 17-point improvement from the full 2011-12 campaign -- to earn the first of the Western Conference's two wild card spots.
The usual suspects came through as Jason Pominville, Parise, Mikko Koivu and Suter were Minnesota's top four scorers, but there was some unexpected improvements as well.
Mikael Granlund, the 22-year-old ninth overall pick of the 2010 draft, more than held his own with 41 points in 63 games and Nino Niederreiter shook off the slow start to his career with the New York Islanders by potting 14 goals with 36 points in 81 games.
Make no mistake, Minnesota is not a team that is going to blow open games with its offense, so the club's trip to the postseason comes as a surprise given that the Wild had four goaltenders make at least 10 starts this season while dressing a total of seven different netminders on the campaign.
Josh Harding returned to action from multiple sclerosis and was in Vezina- worthy form at the early part of the season, but he landed on injured reserve at the end of December due to the effects of the inflammatory disease and Niklas Backstrom had his season end in January due to abdominal surgery.
The Wild appeared as though they were going to ride rookie Darcy Kuemper to the finish line and added Ilya Bryzgalov for depth at the trade deadline. But Bryzgalov played well upon joining the club and a lower-body injury sustained by Kuemper late in the season elevated Bryzgalov to the top of the depth chart and he'll likely start over Kuemper versus the Avs.
Bryzgalov went 7-1-3 with a 2.12 goals against average and .911 save percentage in 12 games with the Wild and also has something Kuemper does not: playoff experience.
Bryzgalov has appeared in 38 postseason games, though his numbers aren't great. He is 17-19 with a 2.81 GAA and .908 save percentage.
There is no leadership shortage in Minnesota's locker room.
Koivu is the club's captain and notched 54 points in 65 games on the season, while Parise captained Team USA at the recent Winter Olympics and has 22 goals and 44 points in his playoff career.
Suter served as an alternate captain for the Americans in Sochi, Russia.
Pominville led the Wild with 30 goals and 60 points, Parise was right behind with 29 tallies and 56 points, and Suter notched 43 points while playing in all 82 games and averaging 29 minutes and 24 seconds of ice time per night.
The Wild don't feature a ton of talent on the bottom lines, so the trade deadline acquisition of Matt Moulson was big. The former 30-goal scorer with the Islanders recorded six goals and 13 points in 20 games after the trade, but has limited playoff experience.
Then there is Dany Heatley, an expensive healthy scratch at one point this season who notched 12 goals in 76 games. His 66 career playoff games do tie Parise for second most on the team, however, behind Matt Cooke's 97.
Suter is the undisputed workhorse at the blue line, but the steady improvement of Jared Spurgeon has helped considerably. He came through with 26 points in 67 games and matched Suter at plus-15.
Jonas Brodin is another solid, two-way defender and those three will log heavy minutes ahead of the weaker supporting cast of Marco Scandella, Keith Ballard, Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner.
The Avalanche got a point in all five of their meetings with the Wild this season, going 4-0-1.
Varlamov was 3-0-1 with a 2.16 GAA in four games, while Bryzgalov did not face the Avalanche while with the Wild. The Russian has, however, won all four of his previous playoff games against them, posting a 0.94 GAA and two shutouts while with the Anaheim Ducks back in 2006.
Landeskog, MacKinnon, O'Reilly and Max Talbot all had three goals versus the Wild this season and Landeskog matched Mitchell for the team lead with six points in the five games.
Parise had a pair of goals and three assists in four games versus the Avalanche, while Heatley and Pominville had four points each.
This is the third all-time playoff meeting between the clubs. The Wild won a 2003 conference quarterfinals matchup in seven games, while the Avalanche knocked off Minnesota in six games during the same round in 2008.
The Wild and head coach Mike Yeo should be commended for what they accomplished this season, but their next challenge comes against a young Avalanche team with talent and confidence.
Roy is a favorite to claim the Jack Adams Award as the league's top coach and has gotten the best from his players all season long. Even without Duchene, Colorado should have little trouble dispatching Minnesota.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Avalanche in 5
04/15 16:11:42 ET