Avalanche a good measuring stick for Wild in competitive Central

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A pesky neighbor in the Central Division that's also a Stanley Cup contender, the Avalanche has been a measuring stick for the Wild in recent seasons.

That won't change Monday afternoon even though the circumstances aren't the same across the board.

The Wild still isn't at full strength and will be putting a three-game win streak up against a robust Colorado team that is cruising at home to the tune of 13 consecutive victories.

"We want to go in there and take two points," Wild alternate captain Marcus Foligno said. "It's a big divisional game and rival. We liked our game so far, and we think that we can just go in there and play a lot heavier, a lot smarter, and do some damage."

Actually, the Avalanche might be the best barometer in a competitive Central Division.

Of all the clubs the Wild is chasing in the division, the one that's logged the closest number of games to the Wild's 34 is Colorado at 35. St. Louis has played four more times and Nashville five.

Those discrepancies can make the standings seem irrelevant, but the five-point gap between the Wild and Avalanche is a realistic indicator of the progress the Wild has to make to climb closer to the top.

"They have a lot of things going in the right direction," coach Dean Evason said of the Avalanche. "It's going to be a good challenge for us."

In its only other clash against Colorado this season, Minnesota lost 4-1 on Oct. 30, the team's third consecutive setback on the road vs. the Avalanche.

But the lineup that lost that game won't get a chance at redemption Monday.

Winger Nick Bjugstad, defenseman Jonas Brodin, captain Jared Spurgeon and goaltender Cam Talbot are still injured, and center Joel Eriksson Ek is out with COVID-19. Defenseman Alex Goligoski has been activated from the COVID list and is expected to play.

Another difference is the emergence of Wild rookie Matt Boldy, who has three points in three games since being called up from the minors to make his NHL debut. Both of the winger's goals have been game-winners, a timely scoring boost, but Boldy has also been impressive without the puck by being in the right spot to leverage his stick to force turnovers.

"Over the last year or so, I've really realized how important that is," Boldy said. "You're not gonna play if you're turning pucks over or you're really bad defensively. You're not going to get your chances. Obviously, I want to be an offensive player but I'm not gonna get out there and play offense if you can't play in the D-zone.

"So, [I'm] definitely learning that side of it a bit more."

While Monday's game is an opportunity to continue recent momentum, the Wild's three straight victories while missing key players might have already prevented this adversity from sabotaging the season.

Those six points have kept Minnesota in the Central Division race, especially considering its games at-hand, and the Wild could be welcoming back Eriksson Ek, Spurgeon and Talbot by the weekend when the team faces Chicago in a home-and-home.

"These last three games were big for us," Foligno said. "There's always those little gaps in the season where you look back and say, 'Well, this broke us, or this made us. So, we definitely want to be looking back at this come playoff time saying, 'We did the right thing, and we came together at the right time and got three big, key victories.' But we gotta keep doing our best before we get a full roster back."