The Colorado Avalanche became the 2013-14 Central Division champions when the St. Louis Blues lost 3-0 to the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday afternoon. Led by first-year coach Patrick Roy, it was yet another remarkable achievement by the Avalanche this season after they finished with the second-fewest points in the NHL in 2012-13.
The Minnesota Wild has qualified for the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. After signing forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter to identical 13-year contracts in the summer of 2012, the Wild ended a four-year playoff drought but were eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round in five games.
When the puck drops on Game 1, it will be the first time the Avalanche and Wild have shared the same sheet of ice since Jan. 30. They played five games against each other in a two-month span, with two of the games requiring shootouts. Colorado finished 4-0-1 against Minnesota; rookie Nathan MacKinnon had two game-winning goals.
The Wild scored more than two goals in one of their five games against the Avalanche, a 5-4 loss on Jan. 30 at Pepsi Center.
Minnesota will have a different look when it faces Colorado this week. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov didn't join the Wild until the first week of March and played a huge role in helping Minnesota end its postseason drought. In his first 11 games with the Wild, Bryzgalov went 7-0-3 with a 1.78 goals-against average and three shutouts.
Colorado likely will play this series without center Matt Duchene, who sustained a knee injury in a game against the San Jose Sharks on March 29. Duchene was the Avalanche's leading scorer this season; he had 70 points (23 goals, 47 assists) in 71 games.
With Duchene, MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O'Reilly, the Avalanche boast the best foursome of under-24 forwards in the League. They are also the team's four leading scorers.
MacKinnon is likely to win the Calder Trophy and might be one of the best players in the League in short order. O'Reilly's breakout offensive season has been overshadowed by the other guys on this team, but producing at this level with his two-way ability makes him one of the most valuable non-superstars in the NHL.
On a team full of players who have more shot attempts against than for, Paul Stastny is the only healthy forward with a Corsi for percentage above 49.0 percent. Like O'Reilly, he's had a very nice season and should be compensated well as a pending free agent.
Max Talbot scored two goals in a Stanley Cup Final Game 7 once, but he's not helping the offense much these days. Patrick Roy should stick with the top three lines as much as possible, because the fourth spends far too much time in its own end despite decent zone starts.
Minnesota went from a top-heavy team up front to a deeper unit in a matter of months. In his first full season with the Wild, Jason Pominville was a key offensive contributor who refined his chemistry with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu. As younger players emerged and the Wild acquired more scoring at the NHL Trade Deadline, they became less reliant on the three veteran forwards.
Any scoring depth the Wild developed over time was a direct result of Mikael Granlund growing into the dynamic playmaker the franchise envisioned when they selected him No. 9 in the 2010 NHL Draft. Granlund struggled with injuries, but when he was healthy coach Mike Yeo was afforded far more versatility with his forward combinations. Young players Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine also provided an occasional spark, but the Wild's big move at the position was acquiring Matt Moulson from the Buffalo Sabres on March 5. Having one more veteran scorer in his lineup gave Yeo more options than he's had since taking over the Minnesota bench in 2011.
Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak add some toughness to Minnesota's other lines, and Nino Niederreiter has relegated to checking duty after flirting with a top-six spot earlier this season. There is a drop-off after that. Stephane Veilleux and Cody McCormick have helped with the penalty kill but done little else, and Dany Heatley and Mike Rupp have been healthy scratches.
This was supposed to be Colorado's undoing before the season, and it is still its biggest weakness. That said, Erik Johnson has rebounded from a poor 2012-13 season. He's not an elite defenseman, but he logs a lot of minutes and faces tough competition. Tyson Barrie has been shielded a bit in terms of competition and zone starts, but he's also been very productive. He was injured in the next-to-last game and did not play in the season finale.
Cory Sarich and Nick Holden have been League average, hold-their-own types. Andre Benoit has been a little less than that. Sarich has been dealing with a back injury.
Jan Hedja faces tough competition, but hasn't fared that well against it. Nate Guenin has a sub-45 percent CF percentage despite favorable zone starts and competition. This team probably can't afford to lose Johnson or Barrie more than any other player, including goaltender Semyon Varlamov.
The evolution of Minnesota's defense was vital to its overall performance. At the start of the season, the Wild were reliant on franchise defenseman Ryan Suter and second-year player Jonas Brodin. Suter did everything that could have been asked of him, leading the League in ice time by more than two minutes per game, and Brodin continued to develop into a solid two-way defenseman.
Much like Granlund did with the forwards, Jared Spurgeon developed as the season went along, earning more and more ice time and giving Yeo greater versatility in how he rolled his defensive combinations. With Spurgeon moved to the top pairing alongside Suter, Brodin was handed more responsibility in leading the Wild's second pair.
Rounding out the bottom end of the blue line, Keith Ballard, Marco Scandella, Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser and Jonathon Blum had their moments, but no one stepped up to solidify the group.
Minnesota leans heavily on its top defensemen, so expect Suter to earn even more ice time during the postseason. He averaged an astounding 31:37 of ice time in the Wild's five playoff games last year. He'll likely match, if not exceed, those numbers this time around.
The key could be Spurgeon, who saw his ice time increase dramatically after the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Earning more and more confidence from his coach, Spurgeon matched or exceeded his previous highs in every major statistical category. That development will be put to the test once the playoffs start.
Varlamov has been a revelation this season. Finally able to stay healthy and find a new level of consistency, he's the biggest reason the Avalanche have any hope of advancing. Reto Berra and Jean-Sebastien Giguere are on the roster and ... well, they are available.
Varlamov plays well, or the Avalanche are sunk. It's that simple.
No playoff team has experienced more change in its crease than the Wild, who saw four goaltenders assume the starter's role. Josh Harding looked like an elite franchise goaltender at the start of the season until he was placed on injured reserve while dealing with the effects of multiple sclerosis. Harding began skating again toward the end of the season but there is no expectation he'll be ready for the playoffs.
Niklas Backstrom held the starter's role, but his season ended prematurely after undergoing abdominal surgery. Though rookie Darcy Kuemper became a workhorse in net, Minnesota shored up its goaltending with the acquisition of Bryzgalov from the Edmonton Oilers on March 4. At the time of the trade, the hope was that Bryzgalov could help mentor Kuemper. But as has been the case much of the season, Minnesota's situation in net changed unexpectedly.
Kuemper sustained a upper-body injury, thrusting Bryzgalov into the No. 1 role. The result has been a career renaissance. If Harding can't return for the playoffs, expect Bryzgalov to take the reins in his first postseason action since 2012.
Roy is one of the leading candidates for coach of the year honors, and given the team's finish last season he could very well win the Jack Adams Award. Retaining the services of Francois Allaire and helping Varlamov become an elite goaltender is far more important than him shoving the glass between the benches on opening night, but people like easy-to-digest narratives.
Another important thing is Roy has allowed his top players to play with more freedom. It might hurt them in the puck-possession department, but this is a fast, dynamic group of forwards and they have succeeded by making other teams pay for mistakes in transition.
Yeo has been handed more and more talent to work with in three seasons behind the Minnesota bench. The former Pittsburgh Penguins assistant has handed the lion's share of the on-ice responsibility to his top veterans while looking to expand the role of his young players. Through it all, he's maintained an ironclad system that offers few quality scoring chances to the opposition.
Like last season, Minnesota was one of the NHL's stingiest teams when it came to shots allowed. The Wild had one of the best 5-on-5 goal differentials in the League, demonstrating Yeo's dedication to fundamentals.
Colorado is a top-five power-play team, which shouldn't be a surprise with the talent up front and Johnson/Barrie on the back end. The Avalanche are 24th on the penalty kill, which also shouldn't be much of a surprise. Unless they reverse a season-long trend of yielding too much at even strength and relying on Varlamov, the Avalanche will need the power play to continue clicking.
Despite the presence of certain world-class talents, the Wild have struggled mightily on special teams. Their power play finished in the middle of the League rankings and their penalty kill was among the NHL's worst.
Parise and Pominville provided most of the scoring on the power play, but there was a major drop-off after that. The hope was that Moulson could provide more scoring with the man-advantage but he hasn't been able to fill the void.
Near the end of the regular season, Minnesota's penalty kill showed signs of life when it went four straight games without allowing a goal. That streak ended when the Wild allowed the Boston Bruins to score two power-play goals on April 8, but it clinched a playoff spot with a 4-3 shootout win. The penalty kill will have to regain its rhythm if the Wild are to advance in the postseason.
Matt Duchene -- This is easy. If Duchene can play at some point, that significantly improves the Avalanche's chances.
Zach Parise -- On a team featuring a handful of players who have advanced deep into the postseason, Parise is the most playoff-ready name on the roster. Two years ago, he was the focal point of a New Jersey Devils team that came within two wins of winning the Stanley Cup. This year, he captained the United States in Sochi.
Parise's big-game experience and ability to play in every situation is Minnesota's best hope for a prolonged postseason run. A leader on and off the ice, he'll be relied on to play a responsible two-way game and create offensive chances. He did that during the regular season, ranking among the Wild leaders in plus/minus and shots despite missing 14 games in the middle of the season with a foot injury.
Avalanche will win if ... Varlamov outplays Bryzgalov and Colorado can find ways to generate offense in Duchene's absence. The Avalanche have played well since Duchene sustained the injury, which is a good sign.
Wild will win if … Depth players help execute a team game that keeps opposing scoring chances to a minimum and star players lead the way with timely scoring. That balance will be crucial. It will be a tough go for Minnesota if it relies too heavily on Parise, Suter, Koivu and Pominville. Bryzgalov has helped lead Minnesota through the key late-season stretch that got it into the playoffs. If he can continue to provide that stout goaltending, his trade for a fourth-round pick could turn out to be an unexpected turning point in the Wild's season.