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Avalanche Roundtable: Stanley Cup Playoffs Round One vs. Minnesota Wild

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Welcome to the first ever Colorado Avalanche roundtable. In this edition we’ll be joined by Mile High Sticking staff writers Blaise Miyakusu, Payton Bartee, Will Agathis, and myself to look at the first round match-up between the Avalanche and Minnesota Wild.

Player To Keep An Eye On

Blaise Miyakusu: Max Talbot is a guy who really turns it on for the playoffs. 39 points in 77 playoff games and scored 2 goals to win Pittsburgh the Cup in 2008. I expect he’ll have a great series

Payton Bartee: I’ll be watching the Avalanche’s Paul Stastny very closely. Without Duchene for at least a little longer, Pauly Walnuts must be counted on to drive the offensive machine and help create scoring plays for the rest of the crew. He is also the best defensive (and face-off) center on the team, meaning he will be counted on to regularly help contain Parise/Pominville/Koivu. For Minnesota, I think their series hinges on the play of Ilya Bryzgalov. The Russian netminder will be facing a high-powered Avalanche offense that puts the puck on net with league-leading efficiency (10.1% shooting percentage). Barring an extreme reversal, the Wild offense is the complete opposite, ranking toward the very bottom of the league in shots per game. That means to give his team its best chance to win, Bryzgalov has to be in fine form to shut down the Avalanche playmakers. He looked up to the task over the last ten games of the season, going 7-1-3.

Will Agathis: Paul Stastny. Avalanche fans should definitely pay attention to Paul Stastny during the first round. Stastny is not Colorado’s best scorer, two-way forward, or leader, but he is a skilled passer, finisher, defensive-forward, center, and leader. From the start of March until the end of the regular season, Stastny scored seven goals and amassed 16 points in 17 games, finishing even in the process. Likely without Matt Duchene and John Mitchell, Colorado has a huge hole at center going into game one; Paul Stastny is now more valuable than ever.

Jeremy Lambert: I’m going to go with Nathan MacKinnon. The Avalanche rookie set the world on fire this season with his strong play as an 18-year old and I don’t expect him to slow down in the playoffs. When the stakes get larger, his game seems to get better. Look no further than last year’s Memorial Cup. If not for his strong performance in that game, I’m not sure the Avs would’ve selected him over Seth Jones. But, in the biggest game of his junior career, he delivered his best performance. The kid has proven all season that he can’t be rattled and his speed and skill make him very tough to deal with. If MacKinnon plays center on a line with Ryan O’Reilly and P.A. Parenteau or Jame McGinn, it’s likely that Paul Stastny’ line will draw the top Wild coverage team, meaning MacKinnon might have that little extra space to work with.

Biggest Concern

Blaise Miyakusu: Semyon Varlamov hasn’t played since April 10th. Hopefully he won’t be too rusty for game one.

Payton Bartee: This beaten horse has long since deceased, but the Avalanche defense still give up way too many shots on goal each game. While Semyon Varlamov is statistically better the more shots he faces, it makes me nervous to give up 30+ shots a game in the playoffs. Minnesota has a very deep and talented forward corps: Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu, Matt Moulson and others, not to mention Ryan Suter out there on the blue line. Given Erik Johnson’s consistency–and assuming Jan Hejda is healthy–It will be up to the more unsung Avalanche defenders like Nick Holden, Andre Benoit, Ryan Wilson, and Nate Guenin to contain Minnesota’s playmakers.

Will Agathis: Erik Johnson. Colorado has a crisis on the blue line: top-pairing defenseman Jan Hejda and top goal scoring defenseman Tyson Barrie are both nursing their own injuries – both upper-body – which will likely keep them out of game one and beyond. How does this affect Johnson? Johnson is now missing his even strength linemate and his powerplay linemate. Finding some chemistry with his new linemate (perhaps right-handed defensemen Nick Holden or Stefan Elliot) will be essential to Johnson’s success in the playoffs. Johnson’s usually good for a point every two games, but injuries will likely play a role in his consistency.

Jeremy Lambert: The penalty kill. For a team that finished 3rd overall, the Avs penalty kill was brutal all season; 26th in the league. It got better down the stretch when Patrick Roy started using guys like Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, and Gabe Landeskog on the penalty kill, but it’s still a concern. The Wild had an average power player this year, but they have a lot of top end talent that could make the Avs pay if their penalty kill doesn’t improve.

Potential Unsung Hero

Blaise Miyakusu: I have a gut feeling Jamie McGinn could possibly have a great series.

Payton Bartee: I think Nick Holden has a great opportunity to make a name for himself in this series. As of yesterday, Holden was listed alongside Erik Johnson on the top defensive line. Now obviously Avs fans hope Jan Hejda will be healthy enough to play in Game 1, but Holden’s offensive explosion this season–and he has only played since November–adds a definite x-factor to the team’s back end no matter where he’s listed. He’s also got the size to compliment Tyson Barrie’s smaller stature if he gets bumped to the second pairing. Whether he’s contributing on offense or helping shut down some of those skilled Minnesota forwards, let’s hope we can look back on a first-round series victory and give Mr. Holden a ton of credit.

Will Agathis: Jamie McGinn. This pick may come as a bit of a surprise. After all, Jamie McGinn has only one point in 22 career playoff contests. But even though his playoff resume is uninspiring, McGinn’s play in the regular season has skyrocketed lately: he has 12 points in his last 17 games. He has truly made Ryan O’Reilly’s transition back to center a much simpler task as a result of Duchene’s untimely injury. If he can continue his streaky play against Minnesota, Duchene’s loss will appear much less noticeable.

Jeremy Lambert: John Mitchell. He’s been “Mr. Versatility” for the Avs this season. He started the year as the fourth line center and has played just about every offensive position on every line since then. He’s a little banged up right now, but it’s going to be tough to keep Mitchell off the ice during the playoffs. He had 32 points in 75 games this year and generally played strong hockey all season. He’s more talented than a lot of people will give him credit for, and even though he has some bad tendencies, he’s a talented player who could make a big difference in this series.

Player The Avs Must Contain

Blaise Miyakusu: Zach Parise. He is the type of player that can single-handedly win Minnesota this series if our team cannot shut him down.

Payton Bartee: Might be an obvious answer, but the Avalanche must contain Zach Parise. While his playoff statistics might not be what you expect–1 point in five games vs. CHI last year–hopefully we can chalk that up to the Blackhawks shutting him down the way Colorado needs to this year. In my opinion, he’s the most dangerous player Minnesota can put on the ice. I think Patrick Roy should extra emphasis on being physical with Parise; finishing every forecheck is essential so he doesn’t smoothly drive the net and create scoring chances. The defenders also have to be mindful of his sneaky-good wrister as he enters the offensive zone.

Will Agathis: Zach Parise. Zach Parise is no dynamo in the playoffs. While forty-four points in sixty-six playoff games is nothing to laugh at, his play after the regular season is not always representative of his ability. So why am I so concerned? Minnesota will need Parise to step up and he has risen to the call since he arrived, with 94 points in 115 games. Maneuvering around a depleted Colorado defense, Parise should have little trouble getting quality chances on Semyon Varlamov.

Jeremy Lambert: Obviously Zach Parise is a big concern, but I’m going with Mikko Koivu. He always seems to have strong games against the Avs and he knows the team very well, having been in the same division with the Avs ever since he was drafted in 2001. He creates that extra space used by Parise with his strength and vision, so if the Avs can contain him, they might be able to contain Parise in the process.

Prediction

Blaise Miyakusu: 4-2 Avs. We took the regular season series 4-1, but 4 out of the 5 were one goal games. You can’t argue with stats though.

Payton Bartee: While the Avalanche took care of business against the Wild in the regular season, Minnesota ended the regular season in strong fashion (6-3-1). They have enough offensive firepower to hang with Colorado; let’s hope Semyon Varlamov isn’t done carrying this team on his back. My prediction: MacKinnon continues his bat-outta-hell offensive show, Landeskog hits anything that moves while potting a few garbage goals, and “VAR-LY!” chants fill the Pepsi Center. Next stop–Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Avalanche in 5.

Will Agathis: Colorado in six. Many are picking against Colorado, but I see the Avs pulling through. On offense, Colorado has much more firepower than Minnesota. Defensively the two teams are pretty close. Not to mention, based on the two teams’ level of play, there’s little reason to expect Minnesota to pull through. One of the biggest arguments for Minnesota is that Colorado lacks playoff experience and seven and eight seeds often pull off upsets in the playoffs. But what people fail to realize is that Colorado actually does have a good amount of playoff. Look for veterans like Max Talbot and Jamie McGinn to step up in the playoffs for Colorado as Varlamov stands on his head and ends the series in six.

Jeremy Lambert: I’m a sports pessimist by nature, but I’ll go with the Avs in six. A lot of Avalanche players might not have playoff experience, but a lot of times that can be overrated and can be more mental than anything. This is a mentally strong Avs team that has proved the critics wrong all season. I trust Semyon Varlamov a lot more than I’d trust Ilya Bryzgalov, and when it comes down to it, goaltending wins in the playoffs.

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