By Craig Schroepfer, WCCO Radio
On April 8, the Minnesota Wild clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. What was yet to be determined was who their opponent in the first round would be. The thought was the Wild would face either Anaheim or St. Louis, both of whom were leading their respective divisions at the time.
When the dust settled on the regular season Sunday, it was the Colorado Avalanche who turned out to be Minnesota’s opponent in the first round. So the question is did the Wild dodge a bullet by not facing the Ducks or the Blues? Or will the Avalanche be too much to handle? Let’s break it down.
Colorado won the series over Minnesota going, 4-0-1 in five meetings.
The Avalanche had five forwards who reached the 20-goal mark this season, led by Ryan O’Reilly with 28. Also reaching the 20-goal mark for Colorado was team captain Gabriel Landeskog (26 goals), Calder trophy candidate Nathan Mackinnon (24 goals) Matt Duchene (23 goals) and Paul Stastny (25 goals).
The last two names on the list are important to pay attention to because Duchene missed the last couple weeks of the regular season with a left knee injury. In Duchene’s absence, Stastny helped to pick up the slack with eight points (four goals, four assists) in five games.
Minnesota had one player reach the 30-goal mark this season. It was Jason Pominville, who also led the team in points with 60. Finishing one goal behind him was Zach Parise with 29. Parise was also second on the team in points with 56. Matt Moulson scored six goals for the Wild after coming over in a trade from Buffalo at the deadline. On the season, Moulson finished with 23 goals.
After that, there is a steep drop as Nino Neiderreiter finished fourth on the team with 14 goals. Team captain Mikko Koivu only had 11 goals for the Wild, but did lead the team in assists with 43.
I give the edge here to the Avalanche. Their forwards have been consistent all season, while Minnesota still has trouble at times finding the back of the net. If the young players like Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund can step up like they have at times during the season, it will close the gap on the Colorado forwards especially with Duchene out of the lineup. Advantage: Colorado.
While he may never live up to the billing he had when he was picked first overall in the 2006 NHL Draft, Erik Johnson had the best season of his NHL career this year with Colorado.Johnson led all defenseman on the Avalanche with 39 points (nine goals, 30 assists) and finished plus-5 on the ice. The team leader for goals by a defenseman for Colorado was Tyson Barrie with 13. Together, they anchor the Colorado blue line.
Minnesota is led by perennial Norris trophy candidate Ryan Suter, who had another spectacular season leading all defenseman on the Wild with 43 points. That mark included eight goals and 35 assists. More impressively, Suter averaged nearly 30 minutes of ice time each game for the regular season.Suter is paired with Jonas Brodin, who continues to develop as one of the top young defenseman in the NHL. Brodin finished with 19 points on the season.
Jared Spurgeon is second on the Wild amongst defenseman in scoring. Spurgeon had 26 points (five goals, 21 assists) in 67 games for Minnesota and was tied with Suter in plus-minus rating among defenseman at plus-15.
If you take Suter out of the equation, there isn’t much difference between the Colorado and Minnesota blue line. With Suter though, you have not only a guy who can play nearly 30 minutes a game but can also shut down any of the top scorers on the Avalanche. Colorado doesn’t have a defenseman that can do that to any of the Wild forwards. Advantage: Minnesota
The man in net this season for Colorado has been Semyon Varlamov, who led the NHL in wins with 41 and had the second-best save percentage among starting goaltenders at .927. Varlamov also had a goals against average of 2.41.
For Minnesota, it has been a cavalcade of goaltenders. Josh Harding claimed the job out of training camp and held onto it for the first two months before missing the rest of the season due to the effects of multiple sclerosis. Niklas Backstrom had the next turn in net but was ineffective before being shut down for the season. Darcy Kuemper had a nice two month stretch at the start of January before suffering a lower body injury and missing the final seven games of the regular season.
That brings us to Ilya Bryzgalov. In 12 games with the Wild, Bryzgalov went 7-1-3 with a save percentage of .911 and a goals against average of 2.12. His play in net provided stability and gave the Wild an opportunity to lock up a playoff berth.
Still questions will remain around Bryzgalov due to his meltdown in Philadelphia while with the Flyers. He’ll get his chance to show he was the goalie that was a part of a Stanley Cup winning team in Anaheim and the one who led the Phoenix Coyotes to consecutive playoff berths in 2010 and 2011. Until he does, I have to give the edge in goal to Colorado. Advantage: Colorado
During Mike Yeo’s three seasons in charge, the Minnesota Wild has been one of the streakiest teams in the NHL.
There are times where the hockey club overachieves with fans believing that they have finally turned the corner and are on the right track to becoming an elite NHL team. Then there are times where the Wild go on a six-game losing streak and it looks like Yeo is very close to losing his job.
His counterpart across the bench, hall of fame goaltender Patrick Roy, took over a team that was 29th out of 30 teams in the NHL last year, led them to a division title and the second best record in the Western Conference this season.
I like Yeo and think he has done a good job despite high and unrealistic expectations from Minnesota Wild fans, but what Roy did with the Avalanche gives him a slight edge in this category. ADVANTAGE: Colorado
Colorado had the No. 5-ranked power play in the NHL season at 19.9 percent. The Avalanche allowed one goal all season with the man advantage. Minnesota was 16th in the NHL on the power play at 17.9 percent. The Wild allowed eight goals with the man advantage.
On the penalty, kill neither team was impressive. Colorado finished 24th in the NHL, killing 80.7 percent of their penalties while scoring three short-handed goals in the process. Minnesota finished 27th in the NHL, killing 78.8 percent of their penalties. The Wild did, however, score four short-handed goals.
I’ll give the edge here to Colorado due to their success on the power play.ADVANTAGE: Colorado.
There are a lot of similarities between both Minnesota and Colorado despite what my breakdown might say. Most of the categories that I’ve broken down favor Colorado. So why do I like Minnesota in this series? Because of how they played during the last couple weeks of the season.
The Wild went into Phoenix back on March 29 with their grip on a wild card spot slipping away and the Coyotes ready to overtake them in the standings. Down 1-0, Minnesota fought back to score three times in the third period, winning 3-1. That loss played a factor in Phoenix missing the postseason.
After that the Wild went into Los Angeles two nights later and rallied in the third period again, scoring two goals in 62 seconds to defeat the Kings 3-2. In their final game of the road trip, Minnesota scored another third period goal to force overtime in Chicago before losing to the Blackhawks 3-2 in a shootout.
In their next three home games Minnesota defeated Pittsburgh 4-0, Boston 4-3 in a shootout and St. Louis 4-2. All three of those teams are favorites to win the Stanley Cup.The point is the Wild played some of their best hockey during the last couple weeks of the season, beating many good teams to clinch a playoff spot in the process. I can’t say that this will be the springboard to a Stanley Cup run, but I do think it gives them enough momentum to get out of the first round.
Minnesota wins in seven games.