December 11, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA; Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler (4) and defenseman Ben Lovejoy (6) help goalie Jonas Hiller (1) defend the goal against Minnesota Wild left wing Zach Parise (11) and right wing Jason Pominville (29) during the first period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Avalanche - Wild

Who: Minnesota Wild (18-11-5)

When: Tonight, 9:00PM EST/7:00PM MDT

Your Starting Goalies: COL – Semyon Varlamov (14-8-0), MIN – Josh Harding (16-5-3)

The Dangermen: With Mikael Granlund out due to injury, there has been a big lack of production behind the team’s top line, helping the team go 3-4-1 of late. In an effort to shake things up, they’ll be bumping Jason Pominville down to the second line (he leads the team with 15 goals) and moving second-line center Charlie Coyle up into his spot. He’ll be joining Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu on the team’s most productive line. With 26 and 25 points respectively, Parise and Koivu lead the team in points and Parise is right behind Pominville with 14 goals.

Aside for that top line, the production just isn’t there. The team sits at 26th in the league in goals-per-game and just can’t seem to find anything resembling offensive consistency past there. Nino Neiderreiter, Matt Cooke and Dany Heatley are among the few floating around at five goals or more, but are often invisible.

Incredibly, the Wild are eighth in the league in power play efficiency, so at least the Wild are making the most of their man-advantage chances otherwise the scoring situation would look a lot worse. As always, the Avalanche will need to STAY OUT OF THE DAMN BOX.

The Defenders: Welcome to the strength of the team. Fifth in the league in goals against per game, the Wild are led again by Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin. Not only the top two in defensive scoring (Suter leads with 17, Brodin is tied with Jared Spurgeon with 11 points), but they form one of the top shutdown pairings in the entire league. Brodin in particular remains underappreciated for his work in his own end.

The rest of the group — Keith Ballard, Marco Scandella, Clayton Stoner and Spurgeon — are smart with the puck and capable of leading the rush the other way, limiting the chances their goaltenders have to handle. Spurgeon has had himself a nice little season offensively with 10 assists already.

Like the power play, the penalty kill is surprising given the respective success of the defense. They are just 25th in the league on the penalty kill at 77.9%. It’s a little stunning given the strength of the defense and the performances they’ve gotten out of Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom this year. If they get sloppy with penalties, it could hurt them.

Dec 5, 2013; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin (25) celebrates his goal with teammates during the third period against the Chicago Blackhawks at Xcel Energy Center. The Wild defeated the Blackhawks 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Puck Stoppers Inc.:  Your presumed starter is Harding. He’s currently 16-5-3 with a 1.52 GAA and .938 save percentage. He gave up just four goals in back-to-back losses to the Avalanche earlier in the season. He’s been not only an outstanding comeback story, but one of the best goalies in the league this season. The Avalanche found success by getting bodies in front of him. He can’t stop what he can’t see.

If it’s not him, it’ll be Backstrom. The former long-time starter has struggled a bit this season, posting a 2.93 GAA and .900 save percentage. He’s struggled a bit this year as the backup to Harding, but has to still be considered capable of stealing a start or two. The key for both is to get shots early and often and to get traffic in front of the net.

How the Avs match up: The Avalanche, according to the Denver Post, are supposed to be getting Jan Hejda and Ryan Wilson back from injury for tonight’s game. That would be huge for a struggling defensive unit. Hejda has been the team’s best defensive defenseman this season and has been a revelation given the struggles of the defense in recent years. Wilson is talented, but hard to judge because of all the time he’s missed during his tenure with the Avalanche.

Against a team with goaltending and team defense like this, getting shots will be key. They teach you from the time you first start playing that just putting the puck on net is the right decision; you never know what will happen once the puck gets on net. The Avs will need to get pucks on net from any angle possible and crash the net. Increased traffic in front of Harding the last two times out helped the Avalanche pick up a pair of wins.


Key Matchup: Traffic In Front vs Harding

Cower in fear if: Someone other than Parise or Koivu remembers how to score.

Pominville continues to light the lamp with impunity.

Hejda and Wilson don’t suit up.

Laugh maniacally if: Matt Duchene continues to remember he’s really, really good at hockey.

We get shaky Varly instead of confident, uber-athletic Varly.

The Avs get the lead first — turns out they are very good when that happens (17-0-0).

Silly predictions: It feels like it’s been awhile since the Avalanche scored first, so this will be one of those times; Harding is again outstanding, giving up less than three goals; The Wild secondary scoring continues to struggle; Paul Stastny scores for the first time in forever.

Final:  2-1 (OT) 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 Mikko Koivu Minnesota Wild NHL Ryan Suter Semyon Varlamov Zach Parise

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