The Colorado Avalanche square off against the Minnesota Wild tonight. Even though the two teams play in the same division and have met five times this year, it’s possible that all Avs fans might not know what to expect from the Wild in this seven game series. So I reached out to Gone Puck Wild editor Dakota Case to get some inside info on the seventh seeded Wild.
In return, I ventured into enemy territory myself and talked up the Avs chances against the Wild.
1. The Avalanche won the regular season series 4-0-1, what do you think that means heading into this series?
Dakota Case: Absolutely nothing. The slate is wiped clean and the real season has begun. Minnesota has traditionally played well against Colorado, and I really don’t expect that to change in just one season. Plus, prior to the final game of this season, the Wild had either beaten or taken points from the last six Stanley Cup champs in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles.
The exciting thing to watch is how unafraid Minnesota is when it comes to playing the best teams in the league. It doesn’t matter who they’re playing or how far down they are in the game–the players come out and continue to stick to Yeo’s hard-nosed, grinding system because they know it’s eventually going to pay off for them sooner rather than later if they continue to buy in. They play their game and don’t get caught up in a foot race with the league’s fastest teams. Control the play, dump the puck and go to work on the opposing defense. Eventually, they’ll wear down just long enough to get a few pucks past their guard and into the back of the net.
2. Do you trust Ilya Bryzgalov in the playoffs?
Dakota Case: I trust him more than I do any other goaltender in Minnesota’s system. Bryzgalov laid an egg in the regular season finale, no question. But Minnesota didn’t exactly play great in front of him, and a large reason why is because they were in full “don’t get injured” mode.
Prior to allowing five goals on 21 shots against Nashville, Bryz was found money, going 7-0-3 with three shutouts and a .924 save percentage in 10 starts since coming over from Edmonton. He’s clearly comfortable with this team, which also interestingly enough considers him to be one of its biggest leaders. Bryz has long been in need of a fresh start, and a deep playoff run with Minnesota may be just the ticket. At the price of an extra 2014 fourth round pick, no one is complaining about this acquisition. The fact that he’s been so brilliant is just the icing on the cake.
3. Who is one player that the Avs must keep an eye on in this series?
Dakota Case: In his sophomore campaign, Mikael Granlund has more than made up for his disappointing rookie season, scoring eight goals and 33 assists for fifth in team scoring with 41 points and a negative-3 rating in 63 games. Labeled a bust at the end of last season, Granny has established himself as one of the team’s best two-way players, winning key face-offs, playing well on both sides of the puck, creating tons of scoring chances and countering physical play with some of his own. Unfortunately, that’s also his downfall.
Granlund is small at 5’10” 186-pounds, but don’t tell him that. After taking enough hits and physical play last season, Granlund has been able to dish it out himself this year. The problem is that, with a history of head injuries, he can knock himself out of the game if he isn’t careful. It was a hit made on LA’s Jarret Stoll on March 31st that caused Granlund to miss the last six games of the season. He should be ready for Game Oneon Thursday, but Minnesota’s coaching staff needs to sit down with him and help him tweak his game a bit. If Granlund is going to have a long and prosperous NHL career as his ceiling suggests, he needs to adapt his game to the point where’s he’s still a constant offensive threat while taking as few hits as possible. He’s got to play like a Datsyuk or St. Louis, otherwise he’ll be just another Pierre-Marc Bouchard–a talented player no NHL GM is willing to take a chance on because of his extensive concussion history.
For now, Granlund is young, healthy and has a special connection with Wild top goal scorer Jason Pominville. Colorado needs to be careful not to give too much attention to the top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle, because this dynamic duo with Matt Moulson skating on the left wing has the potential to make the Avalanche pay big time.
4. Which player on the Avalanche roster scares you the most?
Dakota Case: Nathan MacKinnon, hands down. I still think Seth Jones would have been the better pick simply when looking at a weak defense organizationally speaking, but Mac is no chopped liver. He’s quick, slippery, tremendously talented and absolutely fearless. This kid is already so much fun to watch and, if it doesn’t happen this year for Colorado, he’ll have plenty more opportunities in his career to single-handedly lift the Avalanche past Minnesota and further into the playoffs.
5. The Wild finished 24th in goals scored, how concerning is that number against Vezina hopeful Semyon Varlamov?
Dakota Case: I’ve seen Varlamov play in-person once–a 2-0 home loss by the Wild back on March 4th, 2012–and that was enough. The fact that he has improved by leaps and bounds since, scares the snot out of me. Minnesota doesn’t get many shots on goal in the first place, so each one is going to have to count against a goalie as talented as Varlamov. As tough as Colorado’s offense may be, it’s the goaltender that will likely prove to be the Wild’s downfall should they be eliminated in the quarterfinals for the second straight year.
6. How do you see the series playing out?
Dakota Case: Last year, no one expected Minnesota to beat Chicago. I was one of many Wild fans just ecstatic to have a pony in the race. I thought Chicago would win in six or seven–I was only off by one or two.
This year, it’s a different story. The defense is a little more balanced between Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin, and no Wild goalie has started more than 32 games this season. Players are fresh, most of the big guns are healthy and playing well and the confidence this team has is contagious.
I honestly think Minnesota wins in seven. The best part is that if they do get past Colorado, there’s a good chance Minnesota could make it all the way to the conference final as their round two opponent would be one of two already bruised, battered and banged-up teams in St. Louis or Chicago. You can only play like that for so long before the injuries take their toll, leaving the victor of the Blues/Blackhawks series ripe for the picking.