Nov 19, 2013; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher (11) tries to deflect the puck past Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding (37) during the second period at the Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Avalanche - Wild

Who: Minnesota Wild (15-7-4)

When: Tonight, 6:00PM EST/4:00PM MDT

Your Starting Goalies: COL – J.S. Giguere (5-0-0), MIN – Josh Harding (13-3-2)

The Dangermen: Unfortunately for the Minnesota Wild, there may have been no one on the team hotter than Zach Parise. He had been held off the score sheet just twice this month before injuring his foot. He’ll subsequently be out a few weeks at least.

Nov 23, 2013; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Minnesota Wild forward Mikko Koivu (9) prior to the game against the Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Also going down to injury is Mikael Granlund, who is on the injured reserve thanks to a concussion. He had a dozen points so far and is just another piece of the puzzle missing for the Wild right now. Missing two key players from an offense that already ranks 23rd isn’t the best of things right now. Well, it is for the Avalanche, but yeah.

So who’s left? Mikko Koivu has 21 points to date and is the team’s top center. He’s a two-way force as long as he’s healthy and definitely someone to watch. He’ll likely line up with Jason Pominville, team-leader in goals with 13, on his wing.

Minnesota is also getting a nice contribution out of newcomer Nino Niederreiter (14 points) who was basically left for dead by the New York Islanders. Dany Heatley is still around an capable of putting a few in the back of the net, but it looks like his best days are long gone.

The Defenders: The Wild’s bread and butter for the last several years remains their strong suit in 2013.  Right now, they sit in seventh (one spot behind the Avalanche) in goals per game.  They continue to be led by Norris Trophy candidate Ryan Suter.  He’s a lockdown defender with 15 assists already and their biggest threat from the back end. By a long shot.

Joining him is young star Jonas Brodin. While Broding has four goals and nine points, he’s more known for his work in the defensive zone. Many argue that he should have won the Calder Trophy as top rookie last year thanks to his defensive play. But defense doesn’t usually show up in the stat sheets that most people look at, so tough luck there. Still, he’s going to be a stud in this league and is already close.

Overall, this group is similar to the Blues in the sense that you have to work for every shot you get – they are tied for first in the NHL in shots-against-per-game at 25.2. Nothing will come easy against this team, especially considering…

Puck Stoppers Inc.:  There’s a new sheriff in between the pipes for the Wild and he is one of the hottest goaltenders in the game right now through 19 starts. Josh Harding has been a feel-good story for much of his short career, but this goes past that. He is 13-3-2 with an absurd 1.48 GAA and .939 save percentage.  He’s playing at an elite level and is a huge reason why the Wild are right in the thick of the race in the Western Conference and one of the best teams in the league in terms of GAA.

Harding is an excellent butterfly goaltender with good reflexes and strong rebound-control, so if the Avalanche are looking for big fat rebounds, they aren’t likely to find them here. He’s been exceptional this year and the defense helps him by limiting the amount of shots he sees.

How the Avs match up: The Avalanche are in a little bit of disarray right now as they seem to bring one guy back into the lineup only to lose another. They’ll be without Paul Stastny tonight, as they were against the Blues, which is why Matt Duchene returned a little earlier than expected.

They haven’t faired well against a top defensive team like the Blues and even in wins against other top defensive teams (Boston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh), they managed three total goals in those wins.

Getting on the board early is always a huge key but even more so against teams like this that are adept at keeping the puck out of their net. If they fall behind early, as they did against St.Louis, it could be the death knell.

Key Matchup: Avalanche vs a Fast Start

Cower in fear if: There is no pressure being had on Harding or the Wild defense.

Minnesota gets on the board very early.

The Avalanche don’t STAY OUT OF THE DAMN BOX.

Laugh maniacally if: Colorado comes out flying, getting one early on the streaking Harding.

Giguere cannot be beaten.

The energy and effort that the Avalanche brought in the second and third periods against St.Louis is there for 60 minutes.

Silly predictions: Cody McLeod takes advantage of his new line position, popping in a goal; Gabe Landeskog shows up for real this time, you guys; Ryan Suter power play goal; at least two ridiculous Harding saves.

Final:  3-2 Avalanche

Ryan is the editor of Mile High Sticking as well as co-owner of The Farm Club. Follow him on Twitter to talk Avs, Sabres, hockey in general, or to let him know what a yutz he is.

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Tags: 2013-14 Season Colorado Avalanche Josh Harding Matt Duchene Minnesota Wild NHL Paul Stastny Zach Parise

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