The Wild are in the playoffs for the fifth time. Their first round opponent, for the third time (because to hell with variety), will be the Colorado Avalanche. If it feels like we do this every four or five (or six, whatever) years, you aren’t losing your mind. The Wild enter the series as the underdog, but the good news is that the underdog won both series the first time these teams met. Of course, those series happened so long ago, they have absolutely no bearing on the present. That being said, let’s take a look at the history first.
The Good: 2003 First Round
If you don’t know this stuff by now, You’ve probably never seen a Minnesota Wild highlight video, but here goes. The massive underdog Wild fell behind 3-1 in the series after winning the opener, only to storm back and win three straight in dramatic fashion. In game six, this happened:
And in game 7, this happened:
That was the last goal the legendary Patrick Roy ever gave up. I wonder what happened to him after that?
This was, of course, a rag-tag group for the Wild. Only five players who appeared in that series are still in the NHL, and none suit up for Minnesota. Marian Gaborik and Willie Mitchell will don Kings’ garb tonight. Pascal Dupuis is out for the season in Pittsburgh. Pierre-Marc Bouchard is technically property of the Blackhawks now, and Nick Schultz was a healthy scratch for Columbus on Wednesday in their series opening loss to the Penguins. This series will provide some interesting background, specifically due to the Roy factor in Colorado, but it has otherwise no bearing on what happens this season.
The Bad: 2008 First Round
The Wild were the favorite in this series, having claimed their only division title to date. They were thrown off by a few things. One, Nick Schultz’s appendix decided to rupture in the last few weeks of the season, robbing the Wild of their most important defender for all but one game of the series. Secondly, former Avalanche (and future Wild) goalie Jose Theodore played a fantastic series, posting a .940 save percentage, including 38 stops in game five and 34 more in the decisive game 6. Most importantly, Marian Gaborik had just one assist in the series, despite firing 25 shots on net, and was a team worst minus-3. Still, the Wild held a 2-1 advantage in this series before losing the final three games. But hey, Keith Carney set a record for becoming the oldest player ever to score an overtime winner in a playoff game. So there’s that.
Colorado in a nutshell: The Avalanche are the league’s best turnaround story. One year after winning the draft lottery, earning the right to select franchise center Nathan MacKinnon, the Avalanche won the Central Division title, thanks to a late collapse by the St. Louis Blues (and their own excellent play, of course). What changed? For one, the Avalanche scored at will, pumping in 245 goals on the season. Only Anaheim, Chicago and Boston had more. Colorado also received excellent goaltending, posting a team save percentage of .919, good for fifth in the league. Semyon Varlamov recorded a career year, unsurprisingly, under the tutelage of his legendary coach, Roy, as well as Francois Allaire, the goaltending guru who mentored Roy among many others. In between those two fronts was a largely unheralded defense corps, led by former Holy Angels and Gopher star Erik Johnson and the emergent Tyson Barrie.
Colorado won four of the five meetings during the regular season, including all three games that finished in regulation. Make of this what you will. In 2007-08, the Wild were 5-1-1 against the Avalanche during the regular season. In 2002-03, Colorado was 2-1-2 (two ties).
How they play:
In a word: downhill. If the Avalanche weren’t successful, they would be called a reckless team. They are led by five 20+ goalscorers, all but one aged 23 or younger (though in this series, they will only have four available. More on that later), and their defense are very active in terms of jumping into the play in the offensive zone.
What the newfangled advanced stats tell us:
Not a whole lot, actually. Despite the offensive reputation, the Avalanche aren’t volume shooters, averaging 28.5 shots per 60 minutes, 19th highest in the league. Only Pittsburgh and your Wild were lower (Minnesota was 28th) among playoff-bound teams. Colorado isn’t known as a puck possession team. The Avs also ranked 19th in Corsi and 20th in Fenwick, the two (highly imperfect) metrics used to quantify this stat at present.*
Many experts believe that the Avalanche are a team riding a lucky wave, and that a statistical regression is inevitable. Take this with a large grain of salt. For one, they rode that “lucky wave” to 112 points over the regular season, and even if this statistical regression happens, it won’t necessarily come in this series.
Matt Duchene banged up his knee in late March and is unlikely to play in the series. A huge break for the Wild, as the Avalanche will be robbed of the series’ only 70-point scorer during the regular season. The Avs still have four players who topped 60 in MacKinnon, Ryan O’Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog and Paul Stastny, and get good secondary scoring from Jamie McGinn and P.A. Parenteau, as well as their active defense.
How the Wild can win:
Minnesota is one of the better teams in the league at limiting chances, and this will be key in shutting down the Avalanche. Colorado does give up opportunities as well, allowing 31 shots per game. The trick is solving Varlamov, who finished third in the league in Save Percentage at .927, behind Tukka Rask and (sigh) Josh Harding.
Key Minnesota Players:
1. Ilya Bryzgalov. Temper the Avalanche all you like, but you won’t shut them down completely. Bryzgalov will be tested in this series, and he’s need to perform better than his last two playoff outings, with Philadelphia and Phoenix.
2. Kyle Brodziak, Matt Cooke & whomever plays on their wing. Likely this will be Nino Nieddereiter. If the Wild can get a good shutdown effort from this group on one of Colorado’s top two lines, it can free up the Koivu line to think as offensively as they need to.
3. Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin: Of course the top pairing of Suter and Spurgeon will see big minutes, but they can’t play against every one of Colorado’s guns. The Wild second pairing will need to bring their best as well.
4. Erik Haula. The former Gopher has been somewhat of an X-factor down the stretch, filling in ably for Mikael Granlund while his fellow Finn has been injured. Now that Granlund is likely back for game 1, who knows where Haula will play, but he’s the type of under-the-radar player that can turn a series.
Unlike last season, when the Wild were hopelessly outmatched against Chicago, this series is winnable, but certainly not easy. In lieu of making predictions, which are useless, I’ll leave you with one more “good vibes” video:
Let the games begin.
*If you are unfamiliar with Corsi or Fenwick, click here for a good explanation of what these stats mean.