Colorado Avalanche: Playoff Experience Will Make the Difference

Austin SnowCorrespondent IIApril 9, 2008

One year ago, the Colorado Avalanche had just cleaned out their lockers and were left wondering "What if?"

An improbable stretch run had landed them just one point shy of a playoff berth—a disappointing and seemingly unfair reward for going 15-2-2 to close out the season.

This year, they were determined not to let that happen again. Starting the season, every player and coach knew that the first 10 games would be just as important as the last 10 games.

And now they're back in. After a year-long hiatus, Avalanche fans can finally breathe in that sweet, playoff hockey air that so many had grown accustomed to over the past decade.

The Avalanche open the first round on the road against the Minnesota Wild, winners of five out of eight games during the season series between the two, and first-time division champions.

Yet only three points separate the Wild and the Avs, and the argument could be made that this is one of the most evenly matched first round battles.

Sunday's game at the Pepsi Center was a sneak peak at what is ahead. But it is almost certain that these games, this war, will be different.

The Avalanche are led by Captain Joe Sakic, the longest-tenured captain in the league. His very presence on the ice demands respect, and his patented wrist shot still leaves opposing netminders humbled.

Sakic is joined by a diverse group, ranging from 22-year-old Paul Stastny, who has never played a playoff game in his young career, to Adam Foote and Peter Forsberg, with whom Sakic won a cup on the Avalanche team in 1996 and again in 2001.

In between are the likes of playoff-tested Ruslan Salei, hard-working Ian Laperriere, and multiple scorers who are hungry to bring this team to it's full potential.

Wojtek Wolski is another key for the Avalanche. He has appeared in the playoffs before, but never as a regular in the lineup. He has proven to be a solid offensive producer, and was clutch for the Avs the last time he was in the playoffs, scoring an overtime winner against the Dallas Stars in the first round.

Players like Wolski are the ones Minnesota needs to keep an eye on. If guys like Sakic, Forsberg, and Ryan Smyth are stopped, there are always others like Wolski, Andrew Brunette, and Tyler Arnason who can and will put the puck in the net.

A defensive unit like Minnesota's must have depth and be prepared to handle this group, because you never know where the threat is going to come from.

Losing Nick Schultz to an appendectomy largely hinders that for the Wild. They will have to have someone, or a few players, step up and get the job done or they will be run over.

Andrew Brunette's story is an interesting one. He was a member of the Wild in 2003, when the Avalanche led their first round series three games to one. The Wild came back, forced overtime in game seven, and Brunette scored the series-clinching goal against Patrick Roy—the last goal to be scored on Roy in the NHL.

Terry Frei of the Denver Post asked Brunette if he wanted "to get revenge on... himself?" Brunette replied that he liked the role reversal, but that "it does feel odd doing this again from the other side."

And while these teams match up well in most categories, there is a staggering difference in special-teams play for both squads. The Wild ranked seventh this year on the power-play, and fourth on the penalty-kill.

That doesn't bode well for a Colorado team who ranked 29th on the power-play, the worst ever for the Avalanche. This is one of the main areas in which Peter Forsberg comes into play.

Colorado's power play, while still being among the last in the league, seemed to come to life at the end of the season. No doubt this was fueled by the patience and play-making abilities of Forsberg.

If that can carry over into the playoffs, the Avalanche have a good chance at winning the series. However, if the man-advantage doesn't produce, and Minnesota is able to keep their penalty-kill solid, this is going to be a tough series for Colorado to win.

Power-play quarterback John-Michael Liles showed some offensive spark recently too, so he will be a key as well. A lot is riding on special teams play for both teams, and many experts agree that this factor will in fact decide the series.

While it's very possible that special teams will decide the series, it's also feasible that a lack of special teams will decide the series, in which case the advantage clearly goes to the Avalanche.

Colorado was the least penalized team in the league this year, which can be attributed to their smart, disciplined play. If the Avs stay out of the box, the Wild will have to find some way to cope with the dominance of the Avalanche playing five-on-five.

Colorado severely outranks Minnesota playing five-on-five, both scoring more goals and allowing less. So special teams will decide the series, but that may come in the form of less power-play time for Minnesota.

In the net, both teams are confident that their goalies can make the difference. Niklas Backstrom, the 30-year-old from Finland, is probably one of the most underappreciated netminders in the league.

Although he went 1-4 in the playoffs last year, he still had a respectable 2.22 goals-against average, which is not something to ignore.

His .920 save percentage this year is higher, though, than Colorado goalie Jose Theodore's, who owns a .910 save percentage.

Theodore is on the other end of the spectrum as far as media attention goes. He had a dismal year last season, and many speculated that Avalanche General Manager Francois Giguere would buy out the last year of his contract.

But this season, Theodore, or "Theo" as Avs fans like to call him, has bounced back to become one of the staple elements of this Avalanche team. There are calls from prominent hockey figures for Theodore as the "comeback player of the year," and for good reason.

He has become the clear No. 1 in Denver, and he led this team into the playoffs when so many other stars were injured. He has gone 12-4-1 in his last 17 starts.

If he stays hot it will pose a huge problem for the Wild, who already have to deal with Colorado's physical defense.

This promises to be a long series, with the winner coming in game six or possibly even game seven.

All that said, numbers, records and past achievements are all thrown out the window today. Today the playoffs start, and anything can happen. Today someone finds it in himself to step up and be that hero.

Today you will see giants fall and men rise to become more than they thought they ever could be. The impossible will happen. The inevitable will not happen.

And when we least expect it, magic will turn one of these playoff teams into champions.

It all begins today.