Ever since the Minnesota Wild clinched the top wild card spot in the West with a 4-2 victory over the Boston Bruins, there has been loads of speculation as to who it might face in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Quarterfinals. For a while, it was Anaheim. Then St. Louis. Finally, a six game losing streak by the Blues enabled Patrick Roy’s rising Colorado Avalanche to clinch the Central Division thanks to a 3-0 win by Detroit in St. Louis this afternoon.
As such, Minnesota will fly to the Mile High City later this week for a date with the mighty Avalanche. However, Colorado isn’t the last-place team it was last year.
Rookie Nathan MacKinnon, the first overall pick of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, has been pure dynamite, scoring 24 goals and 39 assists for 63 points and a plus-22 rating. Five Avs forwards have at least 20 goals and 60 points. Only three Wild players have at least 50 points and Zach Parise and Jason Pominville are the only two with 20 goals or more.
On the blue line, eight defensemen have skated 27 games or more. None have skated above a season nightly average of 23:00 per game. Tyson Barrie leads all Colorado defenders with a plus-17 rating. They have a talented, yet relatively young and inexperienced defensive corps that will certainly benefit from the intensity of playoffs. Another thing–they don’t have Ryan Suter. In 81 games this season, Suter is the clear captain of Minnesota’s defensive corps, leading the defense with eight goals and 35 assists for 43 points and a plus-15 rating while skating a nightly average of 29:30 per game. He’ll be the first line of defense against Colorado’s dynamic young forwards.
The Avalanche may not have a Suter, but they do have a Semyon Varlamov. In 63 games played this season, the Russian goalie has put together a 41-14-6 record, a 2.41 goals against average, a .927 save percentage and two shutouts. In addition, his season win total breaks the franchise record set by current Colorado rookie head coach and former Avalanche goalie Roy. He’ll be a finalist if not the eventual winner of the 2013-14 Vezina as the NHL’s best goaltender of the season.
Colorado isn’t Anaheim or St. Louis, but it’s still going to make for some exciting, intense, action packed Central Division hockey that will only further deepen a bitter rivalry that started with the old Northwest Division and continues with the new realignment. The exciting thing is that both Chicago and St. Louis are battered, banged up and not playing well. If Minnesota can overcome the Avalanche, whoever survives between the Blackhawks and Blues will be ripe for the picking. Basically, if the Wild make it out of round one, there’s no reason it can’t make it all the way to at least the Conference Finals.
In order to do that, however, you have to focus on beating one team at a time. After tonight’s finale against Nashville, that team is Colorado. The Avalanche are fast, skilled, have a solid if unspectacular defense and a great goaltender. Minnesota has the tools to handle them, if they play smart. Win faceoffs, control the play, gain the red line, dump the puck, go to work wearing down the opposing defense, win battles, play physical and keep them too busy keeping the puck out of their own end to mount an attack of their own. It’s a nice idea in theory, but can Minnesota pull it off? We’ll find out later this week.