Wild vs. Avalanche: Preview and Prediction for NHL Playoffs 2014 Matchup

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IApril 14, 2014

Wild vs. Avalanche: Preview and Prediction for NHL Playoffs 2014 Matchup

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    Jim Mone

    This series is a showdown between the two teams who earned the most points in close games. On the flip side, they are also the two worst possession playoff teams in the Western Conference, the only two such teams to be outshot in the regular season.

    Minnesota has some amazing superstars like Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville, but has been hampered by injuries all year.

    Colorado is young and fast with incredible goaltending and coaching, but is lacking in experience and missing its top scorer Matt Duchene.

    Does Colorado have an edge, and is it as large as the 14-point regular-season gap and/or 29-goal goal differential suggests? Turn over to find out.

    All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.


Regular-Season Recap

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    Barry Gutierrez

    Minnesota's Season: 43-27-12, .598, fourth in the Western Conference, 11th overall

    It may have been only a marginal improvement over last season's .573, but Minnesota posted its second-best winning percentage in franchise history.

    The Wild started off a strong 15-5-4, and their star goaltending kept them competitive for months as their possession-based play gradually but consistently eroded. Minnesota consequently allowed the seventh-fewest goals in the NHL.

    Everything slowly started to come back together throughout March, with the Wild eventually capping the season with a 6-1-1 record down the stretch.

    Minnesota earned its fifth postseason appearance in its 20-year franchise history and has a decent chance to escape the first round for only the second time.

    Colorado's Season: 52-22-8, .683, first in the Western Conference, third overall

    What a turnaround! From the first overall draft pick to a close race for the Presidents' Trophy, it has been quite a successful season for inevitable Jack Adams winner Patrick Roy.

    Colorado had the second-best record in its 34-season franchise history, bested only by its 2000-01 Stanley Cup-winning season when Roy was the goalie instead of the coach.

    The Avalanche finished fourth in goals scored with Jamie McGinn leaving the team just one goal shy of having six 20-goal scorers. In net, Semyon Varlamov is in the mix for the Vezina Trophy in a season that saw the Avalanche allow the sixth-most shots, 255 more than they took themselves, but finish near the league average in goals against.

    This is Colorado's first postseason appearance since 2009-10 and only its fourth since the 2005 lockout.

Schedule and TV Info

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    Barry Gutierrez

    Game 1: Thursday, April 17 in Colorado at 9:30 p.m. ET on TSN and CNBC

    Game 2: Saturday, April 19 in Colorado at 9:30 p.m. ET on TSN and NBCSN

    Game 3: Monday, April 21 in Minnesota at 7 p.m. ET on TSN and NHLN-US

    Game 4: Thursday, April 24 in Minnesota at 9:30 p.m. ET on TSN2, CNBC

    Game 5: Saturday, April 26 in Colorado at TBD on TSN, TBD

    Game 6: Monday, April 28 in Minnesota at TBD on TSN, TBD

    Game 7: Wednesday, April 30 in Colorado at TBD on TSN, TBD

    Schedule information from NHL.com.

Key Storylines

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    Scoring Without Duchene

    Can Colorado continue to score without its high-scoring young speedster Matt Duchene?

    Duchene scored 23 goals and led the team with 70 points in just 71 games before bruising his knee in a collision with Jamie McGinn in late March.

    The Avalanche posted a 5-1-2 record without Duchene, scoring 21 goals in those eight games.

    Playoff Inexperience

    If you add up the combined postseason experience of their respective rosters, Minnesota beats Colorado 74 to 42 in the number of series played, 562 to 412 in games, 78 to 42 in goals and 207 to 131 in points.

    The Wild have eight players with at least five postseason appearances, while the Avalanche will play Game 1 with only two players who have more than two appearances, Max Talbot and Cory Sarich (assuming you ignore the injured Alex Tanguay and backup goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere).

    Battle of the Underrated Blue Lines

    Neither team was felt to have a strong blue line before the season began, and both teams proved analysts wrong.

    Minnesota's star defenseman Ryan Suter is paid more than the rest of its blue line combined. The top four is rounded out by 20-year-old sophomore Jonas Brodin, the small but highly underrated Jared Spurgeon and defensive-minded Marco Scandella.

    Colorado's best-known blueliner is Erik Johnson, who is often joined by Jan Hejda, one of the league's best shutdown defensemen. The relatively unknown Andre Benoit and Nick Holden round out the top four. Puck-moving 22-year-old Tyson Barrie is questionable for Game 1.

Players to Watch

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    Jim Mone

    Minnesota: Zach Parise

    Zach Parise is one of the world's best players, and he's coming in hot with six goals and 11 points in his final nine games.

    Parise once again leads the team in average quality of competition and boasts the best possession numbers on the team. In terms of more traditional statistics, Parise's 29 goals and 56 points are second to linemate Jason Pominville. That left him just one goal shy of earning 30 goals for the sixth time in his past six full seasons.

    Parise also leads the team with 245 shots, which were taken at an average of only 23.4 feet, only a tenth of a foot behind Matt Moulson for the team lead, according to the data at Extra Skater.

    More than just an offensive-minded player, Parise is also a forward to whom the team turns to protect late leads. He is not afraid to mix it up or to kill penalties, and he received Selke Trophy consideration in his last four full seasons.

    Colorado: Paul Stastny

    Son of franchise legend Peter Stastny, Paul Stastny is the player consistently trusted to take on the top opponents, often in defensive situations, and yet he still manages to both score and post the best possession numbers on the team. In this regard, he is greatly assisted by a tremendous young linemate in Gabriel Landeskog.

    Stastny is one of five Colorado forwards to score at least 20 goals and 60 points this season, and the only one over age 23. He is also the team's key faceoff man, winning 54.1 percent of his draws.

    He is a pending unrestricted free agent and will be one of the juiciest targets if he can't come to a deal with Colorado by July 1.

Goaltender Breakdown

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    David Zalubowski

    Ilya's Breezing into the Playoffs

    Ilya Bryzgalov posted a .905 save percentage in Philadelphia and was bought out. He posted a .908 save percentage in Edmonton and was dealt away in favor of two goalies with 57 games of combined NHL experience going into this season.

    He posted a .911 save percentage in Minnesota and didn't suffer a regulation-time loss until the final game of the season. Oh what a difference a few saves can make!

    It's hard to know exactly what to expect from the 33-year-old Russian, or even if he'll be replaced by 23-year-old Darcy Kuemper or possibly even a returning Josh Harding. Most likely it will be league-average goaltending at best, which has been more than sufficient for the Wild lately.

    Vezina for Varlamov?

    While Boston's Tuukka Rask is my choice, it isn't hard to build a Vezina argument in favor of Semyon Varlamov instead.

    The 25-year-old Russian led the league with 41 wins and 1,867 saves, and finished tied for third with a .927 save percentage. It was a big improvement over last year, his second season in Colorado, where he posted a .903 save percentage and led the league in losses.

    It has been a very consistent season for Varlamov, who has allowed exactly two goals in seven of his last nine games and almost half of his starts overall. Regardless of how many pucks have been thrown at him, Varlamov keeps Colorado in the game.

Biggest Mismatch

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    Gerry Thomas/Getty Images

    Patrick Roy is up for the Jack Adams Award by helping a 29th-place team win the new Central Division in just his first year as an NHL coach. It was an incredible season for the Avalanche, whose unexpected successes included:

    • Starting goalie Semyon Varlamov's save percentage improved from .903 to .927, and he went from leading the league in losses to leading the league in wins.
    • A blue line that was considered one of the league's weakest rose to prominence on the backs of previously unknown players like Andre Benoit, Nick Holden, Tyson Barrie and Nate Guenin.
    • A depth of forwards, five of whom managed at least 20 goals and 60 points under Roy, including teenage rookie Nathan MacKinnon.

    This is a team that had the second-best close-game record in the entire NHL, earning over 20 percent more points than any other team. However you divide the credit for all of this success, Roy must certainly be awarded a large share.

    As for Mike Yeo, Minnesota's record is 104-82-26 during his coaching tenure, with just a single postseason victory. His only prior experience as a head coach was with the AHL's Houston Aeros, whom he guided to the Finals in 2010-11 with a tremendous second-half run.

    While Yeo is no slouch behind the bench, few would argue that the Wild's fate would have been significantly worse with someone else.

    While I couldn't find a single analyst who projected Colorado any higher than third in its division, with the consensus choice being sixth place or worse, Minnesota is actually a bit lower than where they were expected to be. Over 80 percent of analysts pegged Minnesota for third in the Central Division, which would have been correct had Patrick Roy not coached a potentially lesser team to finish ahead of them.

Minnesota Will Win If...

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    Joe Mahoney

    Minnesota will win if its can take advantage of Colorado's weakness in possession-based play.

    Colorado finished 27th in the NHL by taking only 46.6 percent of each game's attempted shots, according to the data at Extra Skater, the lowest among playoff teams. In my view, this stems from an arguably mediocre blue line.

    The Avalanche spend a lot of time in their own end and/or without the puck, and have attempted more shots than their opponents only three times in the last 29 games. They rely on superior goaltending and an edge in shooting percentage of 10.1 percent to 8.1, second largest in the NHL to the Boston Bruins.

    Lucky for Colorado that its first-round opponent is the second-weakest possession team among those who qualified in the Western Conference. That being said, the Wild had both strong starts and finishes to the season and have the tools to make the most of one of their opponent's only weaknesses.

Colorado Will Win If...

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    Colorado will win if it can continue to win the close games.

    The Avalanche earned 89 points in 59 close games, which is defined as any game decided by a single goal or an empty-netter. No other NHL team earned more than 74 points that way, although Minnesota was one of them, and in the same number of close games. The Wild also collected more points than any other team when trailing after two periods, according to Scott Burnside of ESPN.

    Colorado's .754 winning percentage in close games was second to Anaheim and a massive improvement over last year's 26th-ranked .468. As a comparison, if the New Jersey Devils had managed the same close-game success they would have finished second in the Eastern Conference to the Boston Bruins.

    The Avalanche win these close games when goalie Semyon Varlamov keeps them in games in which they're being outplayed and outshot long enough for their depth of young and fast scoring to come through with some timely clutch goals.


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    Ann Heisenfelt

    Colorado was very fortunate to earn itself a first-round series against Minnesota, which is arguably the only team against whom it could be considered the favorite despite its incredible regular-season finish of 112 points.

    The Avalanche are a weak possession team, spending a lot of time in their own zone and/or without the puck, but converting on 10.1 percent of their shots relative to just 8.1 percent for their opponents.

    It's up for debate how they have managed to win so many close games and/or if it will continue, but it's definitely an awfully risky horse on which to hitch one's wagon.

    This will be a hard-fought series, and while Colorado has the edge, under no circumstances should it be considered an upset if Minnesota prevails. 

    Prediction: Colorado in seven games. 

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.


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