Avalanche vs. Wild preview: Colorado's potent offense takes on Minnesota's strong defense

Hannah Foslien

The Avalanche are the biggest surprise of the 2013-14 season, led by great goaltending and a potent offense. Can they keep it up against the strong defense of the Wild?

It's not a surprise to see the Minnesota Wild in a No. 2 vs. 7 matchup.

But to not only see the Colorado Avalanche here this season, but to have them be the team occupying the second spot in the Western Conference, is probably one of the most unexpected developments of the 2013-14 regular season.

The Avs won the Central Division over Stanley Cup contenders Chicago and St. Louis, and very nearly topped the Anaheim Ducks for the top spot in the West. The season began with the team bringing back several key parts of glory years for front office and coaching jobs -- Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic, Adam Foote -- and the top overall pick in the draft. Their turnaround has been much faster than anybody could have anticipated, and there is a lot of credit to go around for that.

The Wild, meanwhile, are right back where they were last season -- a really expensive bottom playoff seed that's still looking to take the next step in the playoffs. Will this be the year they're able to do it? Or is this their ceiling as the team is currently constructed?

One thing is for sure, this is definitely a more favorable matchup than they had in the first round last season.

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Avalanche still deadly without Duchene

Even without Matt Duchene for this round, the Avalanche still have a pretty potent group of forwards and one of the best collections of young talent in the league. Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O'Reilly, Paul Stastny and No. 1 overall draft pick Nathan MacKinnon can be a terrifying group to try and slow down, and even though the Avalanche possess some pretty ugly underlying numbers, they are capable of making the most of the chances they do get.

They're also a deeper team than Minnesota when it comes to putting the puck in the net, with seven players this season who have scored at least 14 goals. The Wild have three.

Minnesota has spent a ton of money and resources over the past couple of seasons in an effort to build a Stanley Cup contending team, and so far the best they've accomplished is a bottom seed in the Western Conference playoffs. With Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu, Matt Moulson and even Dany Heatley, the Wild have acquired and built around some big-name, big-money players. However, they remain one of the worst offensive teams in the league, scoring fewer goals and generating fewer shots than they did a season ago.

The only team that made the playoffs this season and scored fewer goals than them is Los Angeles, and the Wild don't have their puck possession ability or goaltending to make up for the lack of scoring.

Suter gives Minnesota blue line advantage

The biggest Achilles heel for the Avalanche this season: Their blue line. They have five (with a healthy Duchene) gamebreaking forwards and have received a wonderful goaltending performance, but they have some major holes on the defense.

Erik Johnson, a former No. 1 overall pick acquired as part of a blockbuster trade with the St. Louis Blues a couple of seasons ago, seems to have taken a step forward this season, while 22-year-old Tyson Barrie has been impressive in his first season as an NHL regular. But once you get beyond those two guys, it's a group that doesn't quite seem ready to seriously compete for a Stanley Cup.

To say that Minnesota leaned heavily on Ryan Suter this season would be a laughable understatement. Not only did he appear in all 82 games, but no player in the NHL played more minutes than he did -- more than 29 minutes per game. To put that into perspective, only one other player in the league (Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson) averaged more than 27 minutes per game (Karlsson averaged 27:04, to be exact).

Of the NHL's top-30 games this season in minutes played, Suter was responsible for 12 of them. He topped the 30-minute mark 37 times this season. It's at this point that we start to wonder whether or not that is ever going to catch up to him.

Even with Suter and Johnson, both of these teams are thin on the blue line. The only two defensemen in this series who appeared in at least 40 games this season and posted positive possession numbers are Barrie and Minnesota's Jared Spurgeon.

Varlamov vital to Colorado's success

Other than their top forwards, Semyon Varlamov's career year has been a huge piece of Colorado's puzzle. He finished the regular season with a .927 save percentage, third-best in the NHL. He's one of just seven goalies since 2005-06 to appear in 60 games and finish with a save percentage higher than .925, so this was a pretty spectacular performance -- and given the number of shots the Avs allowed this season, they needed it.

Minnesota, meanwhile, has been relying on trade deadline acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov down the stretch. Due to Niklas Backstrom's injury and Josh Harding's battle with multiple sclerosis, the Wild needed to add somebody else to team up with Darcy Kuemper.

They ended up getting Bryzgalov from the Edmonton Oilers for a draft pick. He posted a .911 save percentage and three shutouts after the trade, proving quite a few doubters wrong along the way. Still, given their performances this season, as well as Bryzgalov's recent track record (especially in the playoffs), Colorado would seem to have a pretty significant edge in net entering the series.

Who has the special teams edge?

Both teams have been pretty miserable this season on the penalty kill, finishing the season 24th (Colorado) and 27th (Minnesota) in the league, so staying out of the box seems like a necessity.

While Minnesota's penalty kill struggles seem to have more to do with goaltending than the performance of their penalty killers (the Wild allow the 10th fewest shots per 60 minutes of 4-on-5 time in the league), the Avalanche's PK may be even worse than the percentages suggest. Despite having the fifth-best shorthanded save percentage in the league, Colorado was still one of the worst PK teams in the league when it came to giving up goals, a testament to just how many shots the team gave up. Given the makeup of its defense and its struggles at even-strength, this isn't really a surprise.

The Avalanche power play is probably the best special teams unit in this series with the fifth-best success rate in the league. However, they don't do a great job when it comes to generating shots, which could point to a little bit of shooting luck being on their side.

The schedule

Date Time (ET) Western Conference First Round National TV
Thu, Apr 17 9:30 p.m. Minnesota at Colorado CNBC, TSN
Sat, Apr 19 9:30 p.m. Minnesota at Colorado NBCSN, TSN
Mon, Apr 21 7 p.m. Colorado at Minnesota NHLN U.S., TSN
Thu, Apr 24 9:30 p.m. Colorado at Minnesota CNBC, TSN2
Sat, Apr 26 TBD Minnesota at Colorado TSN
Mon, Apr 28 TBD Colorado at Minnesota TSN
Wed, Apr 30 TBD Minnesota at Colorado TSN

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