Nov 23, 2013; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise (11) celebrates his goal with teammates during the third period against the Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre. Wild win 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Avalanche - Wild

Who: Minnesota Wild (15-8-4)

When: Tonight, 9:00PM EST/7:00PM MDT

Your Starting Goalies: COL – Semyon Varlamov (12-6-0), MIN – Niklas Backstrom (2-3-2)

The Dangermen: We’re pretty familiar with these folks by now. Zach Parise, leading scorer for the Wild, returned to the lineup last night. He was expected to miss a few weeks with a foot contusion he suffered on November 26th but he’s tough, so back into the swing of things he goes. He’s an explosive skater with good hands; there’s a reason they gave him $98 million.

Parise will be back alongside Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle. The three seemed to be forming pretty good chemistry before Parise left the lineup and the small absence isn’t likely to throw anything out of the loop. Parise looked good as new last night while Koivu and Coyle are strong on the puck and smart in their decisions.

Jason Pominville had a strong game last night and looked like he may have had a couple before the night was over. Unfortunately for him, J.S. Giguere was lights out yet again. Pominville is a finesse player in every sense of the word but he’s also a very smart player who finds the open spots and drifts into them at the right time. If the Avalanche aren’t smarter in defending him, he will get on the board tonight.

I’m not sure if they’ll be on the same line again tonight,but it looked like Nino Neiderreiter and Dany Heatley were forming a nice little bond, connecting on the Wild’s only goal as Neiderreiter delivered a beautiful pass to a cutting Heatley. He may not be the same guy that used to be one of the most dangerous goal-scorers in the league, but Heatley is still a guy who can fill the back of the net when he wants to.

The Defenders: I cited this as a strength for the Wild in yesterday’s preview and it certainly was last night. Yes, the Wild lost the game, but the Avalanche managed just 20 shots on the night against Josh Harding and both goals were the result of traffic in front of the net.  Goaltenders likely can’t stop what they can’t see and the Avalanche made the most of it.

Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin form arguably the league’s best shutdown pair and it showed. No one among Colorado’s forward ranks had a particularly good game and Matt Duchene, who was a borderline MVP candidate before his injury, was kept completely in check. As a group, the Wild defenders are smart, disciplined, they block shots and they keep the front of the net as clean as it gets in this league.

Even with Harding on the bench, tonight isn’t likely to be an easy task for the Avalanche and they’ll have to work for every shot that they get.

Puck Stoppers Inc.:  Spelling the red-hot Harding will be longtime Minnesota starter Niklas Backstrom. Relegated to the backup role by Harding, Backstrom hasn’t exactly shone in his new role. He’s just 2-3-2 with a 2.77 GAA and .896 save percentage. He’s in his latter years like Giguere, but his play seems to be drifting further and further away from what we’ve come to expect from him.

Nov 23, 2013; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Winnipeg Jets forward Matt Halischuk (15) scores a goal on Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom (32) during the third period at MTS Centre. Wild win 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

The Wild hope it’s just a slump while the Avalanche will hope that it’s a sign of what’s to come.  They’re likely to find more success tonight just based on the stats, but if the Wild continue to keep the Avalanche forwards at bay, it really might not matter how well Backstrom is playing. As long as he isn’t awful, the defense will give them a chance. Still, this is a far better matchup for the Avalanche as opposed to playing someone like Harding who is off to an outstanding start.

How the Avs match up: Obviously, both teams are the back half of a back-to-back so neither team has the freshness advantage. The Avalanche do have the home ice advantage and their starting goalie going against the Wild’s struggling backup, so the advantages certainly are Colorado’s corner tonight. They are also likely to get Paul Stastny back into the lineup; he’s been battling back spasms the last few games.

It’s no secret by now that the Avalanche have a fantastic record when they get on the board first and early. It helped them withstand a few flurries from the Wild last night and it gets a little jump in their step to pick up the first goal of the night. They will likely need to repeat last night’s formula for success: get bodies in front of the net, shoot the puck from the point and hope to get on the board early. They’ll likely need to do better than last night’s 20-shot performance if they want to win again, but who knows.

Key Matchup: Getting Shots vs Minnesota’s league-leading shots against total

Cower in fear if: Backstrom isn’t struggling quite like his numbers suggest.

The Wild strike quickly and ratchet up the defense.

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

Laugh maniacally if: Having a nearly full lineup again gives the Avalanche a boost.

Varly picks up where Giggy left off last night.

The Avalanche rack up 30+ shots against a struggling netminder.

Silly predictions: Pauly Walnuts scores in his return; Matt Duchene Human Video Game ™ returns; Zach Parise does something impressive en route to a goal; Gabe Landeskog delivers at least one huge hit.

Final:  3-1 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 Central Division Colorado Avalanche Jonas Brodin Mikko Koivu Minnesota Wild NHL Ryan Suter Zach Parise

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