When the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild open their first-round series, both have something to prove. Though both made the playoffs, each comes with their share of doubters for one reason or another. Despite winning the Central Division, the Avalanche have been widely viewed as a team that has been fortunate, while the Wild have battled consistency issues throughout the year and have a big question mark in net.
For Minnesota, this series represents an opportunity to take a step forward. After a first-round ouster at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks last year with their revitalized roster from the previous offseason, it was only a taste. Now, with the young players a year older and Zach Parise and Ryan Suter still at the top of their games, more is expected even though Minnesota made the playoffs via the wild card.
On the other side, the Avalanche are coming off a dramatic turnaround season, going from second to last in the league last year to winning the incredibly tough Central Division and earning the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. It would be foolish to think Colorado would be happy just to be there, though. There are a lot of young players getting their first tastes of the playoffs, however, so this is going to be unfamiliar ground in some ways and tough to predict.
Neither team has been overly inspiring when it comes to puck possession this year, which is why each has plenty of doubters. The Avs have been aided by elite-level goaltending out of Semyon Varlamov, which is the major difference between where each team ended up in the standings despite such poor possession numbers.
The Avs owned the season series, going 3-1-1 against their Central Division foe.
These teams may be more even than they appear, which is why this series could be really tough to predict. Will the Avalanche be able to continue what they've done in the regular season despite their relative youth and inexperience? Will the Wild have adequate enough goaltending to take that next step? These are the big questions we'll be asking all the way to puck drop.
COL Offense vs. MIN Defense
As noted already, neither team has been known for its possession numbers. Both are bottom ten in the league in Corsi for percentage (shot attempts for vs. shot attempts allowed at even strength) and Fenwick for percentage (shot attempts for, excluding blocked shots vs. shot attempts against, excluding blocked shots). For the Wild, though, that's not entirely on their defense.
When it comes to shots on goal, the Wild have allowed an average of 27.7 per game, which is fifth fewest in the league. According to ExtraSkater.com, the Wild rank eighth in the league when it comes to total shot attempts allowed at even strength. The Avalanche are 18th in the league in terms of total shot attempts for at even strength.
While the Avs aren't getting as many shots off, they're making them count more frequently than most. They have the best total shooting percentage in the league at 10.1 percent.
With Matt Duchene expected to miss the start of the playoffs, the Avalanche offense is still pretty good, but not as potent without their star.
Based on their performances this season, the Wild should be able to adequately defend the Avs, but the skill of Colorado's forwards is not to be underrated. I think this one is a little too close to call, so it's listed at even.
MIN Offense vs. COL Defense
The Wild have enough skill up front to be better when it comes to puck possession. The addition of Matt Moulson at the deadline adds to a solid group that includes Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu and up-and-coming forwards Nino Niedereitter, Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle. They also get good production out of Suter from the back end.
That said, the Wild have really struggled to get pucks to the net this year with an average of 26.6 shots on goal per game. Only the Buffalo Sabres had a worse mark. Lucky for them, they play a Colorado defense that has allowed 32.7 shots against per game, fifth highest in the NHL.
Expand that to total shot attempts against at even strength and you see why the Avalanche have such middling possession numbers. Even when you eliminate some of the noise and look at shot attempts allowed in close-score situations at even strength and the Avs are still near the bottom of the league.
Both teams are deficient in these areas. Perhaps in a short series one or the other could get hot, and if you had to pick which group had potential for a break out, it would be the Wild offense against the Colorado defense. With that being too tough to predict, this one stays even.
Here's the decisive advantage in the series and the reason the Avalanche may have the best chance to win. When it comes to goaltending, the season Semyon Varlamov has had vs. the goaltending situation the Wild have dealt with all year, there's no comparison.
The Wild were getting all-world goaltending out of Josh Harding, but with his return to the team unlikely after contending with issues stemming from multiple sclerosis, Minnesota has to lean on Ilya Bryzgalov and Darcy Kuemper.
Bryzgalov is expected to go in Game 1 and you never quite know what you're going to get from him. He has a .911 save percentage in 12 appearances with the Wild, with a .908 mark when combining his 20 appearances with the Oilers.
Varlamov, meanwhile, is the most important player to the Colorado Avalanche. He is the reason they were able to have so much success despite often being out-shot and out-possessed. Varlamov carries a .927 save percentage into the playoffs, including a .933 mark at even strength. He very well could be the difference in this series.
Here's another area that should be an advantage to the Avalanche. With the fifth-best power play in the league this year at 19.9 percent, that could be an area where they create separation with the Wild, which has been a dreadful penalty-killing team this year. Their PK unit ranked 27th in the league, killing only 78.8 percent of their disadvantages.
The Wild has been OK on the power play with a 17.9 percent success rate, which ranked 16th in the league. They could reap the benefits of a similarly dreary penalty kill as the Avs ranked 24th in the league killing 80.7 percent of their penalties.
That really strong power play for Colorado is the reason they get the edge here.
|(1) Colorado Avalanche vs.|
(4) Minnesota Wild
|Thu Apr 17||9:30 ET||Denver||CNBC, TSN|
|Sat Apr 19||9:30 ET||Denver||NBCSN, TSN|
|Mon. Apr 21||7 ET||St. Paul||NHL Net, TSN|
|Thu Apr 24||9:30 ET||St. Paul||CNBC, TSN|
|*Sat Apr 26||TBD||Denver||TBD, TSN|
|*Mon Apr 28||TBD||St. Paul||TBD, TSN|
|*Wed Apr 30||TBD||Denver||TBD, TSN|
* if necessary