(Ed. Note: With its new playoff format, the NHL is seeking to create passion for fans and teams through forced, bracketed relationships. But hey, at first glance, the matchups are pretty sexy. All of this led to one ideal theme for our 2014 Playoff Preview: Tinder, the social media dating app. We hope you swipe right this postseason ...)
If you predicted the Colorado Avalanche were going to be this year's Central Division champs, and possess one of the most dynamic offenses full of young talent in Patrick Roy's rookie season behind the bench, you're high. (If you're in Colorado reading this, you probably are high.) No one expected the Avs to go from worst to first (ish) so soon. This is a big accomplishment for a club that's going to be scary-good as they get older.
As for the Wild, what can be said? High payroll dollars do not lead to wins -- just ask the Anaheim Angels. At least expectations were tempered after one season with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. The Wild played the best they could as they managed injuries to multiple goaltenders and lengthy streaks without the big stars.
The Wild lost the five game season-series to the Avs, 1-3-1. The final game of the five was the most contentious, with both teams racking up 64 penalty minutes; however, that was back in January. We'll see if the blood still boils as the teams get reacquainted with each other.
Jason Pominville (30) and Zach Parise (29) are the only scorers on the Wild with more than ... 15 goals. Matt Moulson was acquired at the trade deadline and has a total of 23 goals between three teams, but has scored six goals in 20 games played with the Wild.
Up front with Parise and Koivu is the youngster Charlie Coyle. His scoring has dropped off after scoring 8-6-14 in 37 GP in 2013 to 70 GP, 12-18-30 this year. All three have missed at least 10 games with in at some point in the season.
Following a great Olympic games, Mikael Granlund was knocked out of the lineup with a head injury. Granlund's first game back from the injury, suffered on March 31st, will be Game 1 of the playoffs. In the games he did play, he was the second best setup-man (33 assists) behind Koivu (43 assists). Flanking Granlund is the Wild's leading scorer Pominville and new-guy Moulson.
The annoy-the-crap-out-of-you line of Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and Nino Niederreiter combined for 78 points and 159 penalty minutes. Rounding out the forwards: Stephane Veilleux (34 GP, 3-pts., 21 PIMs), Erik Haula (46 GP, 15-pts., 29 PIMs), and Cody McCormick (43 GP, 7-pts., 52 PIMs).
Colorado has one of the fastest and most enjoyable forward corps to watch. They are led by Matt Duchene, with 70 points (23-47), although he's out with a lower-body injury sustained against San Jose on March 29th. It sounds like Duchene is eying Game 3 as his return date. All is not lost with Duchene out of the lineup.
Ryan O'Reilly is having a career year at the ripe old age of 23 with 64 points. He's also had only one penalty called on him the whole season. He's so gentlemanly he should play the game wearing a top hat and monocle. His linemate is a child playing in the NHL. What were you doing at 18? Probably not scoring 24 goals, 39 assists and drawing a plus-20 rating in your first season of professional hockey. Nathan MacKinnon laughs at you as he counts his entry-level contract money. The old man anchoring the line is 31 year-old PA Parenteau. Grandpa has missed 27 games with an injury. He played in two regular season games prior to the playoffs and put up zeroes in every category.
The second line is just as good, if not better. The old man line is led by 21-year-old, Gabe Landeskog. He's a plus-21 and is second in team scoring behind Duchene with 65-pts; I was surprised to see the Swede had racked up 71 PIMs. The always reliable Paul Stastny put together another 60-pts. or more season. The 28-year-old could be playing in his final games in an Avalanche sweater as he becomes an UFA on July 1st. Jamie McGinn rounds out that super-group in Duchene's absence.
The last two lines are a lot like Minnesota's - they are put together with pain in mind. Maxime Talbot (acquired via trade with Flyers), Marc-Andre Cliche, and Cody McLeod combine for 47-pts, with most of those points coming from Talbot's 8 goals and 9 assists, and 186 PIMs (McLeod owns 122). Making up the fourth-line, Patrick Bordeleau (115 PIMs), Brad Malone (23 PIMs), and Paul Carey (zero PIMs). Roy enjoys unleashing the Bordeleau and McLeod when things aren't going Colorado's way.
Ryan Suter is robot. He average 3o minutes of ice time per-game, and is Minnesota's fourth leading scorer (8-35-43). He and defensive partner Jared Spurgon lead the team in plus/minus at plus-15. (Yes, it is an arbitrary stat, but it's safe to assume he's playing against the other team's best players.)
When Suter isn't on the ice, Marco Scandella and last year's impressive rookie defenseman Jonas Brodin are. Brodin is your prototypical defensive-defenseman, and that allows Scandella to roam, picking up a point here or there (3-14-17). Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser are the final d-pairing, with 84 and 58 PIMS, respectively.
For Colorado, Jan Hejda and defensive-partner Erik Johnson share the top two slots in time on ice at 22:19 and 23:00 minutes respectively. (Ryan Suter laughs at this!). Johnson has tied his career best season in points at 39; the first time he hit that mark was in his sophomore season with the Blues. Getting left off of Team USA didn't seem to phase him either. As Johnson's offensive-side grows, Jan Hejda stays back providing some, but not much offense.
Nate Guenin had spent a majority of his career in the AHL, getting chances with big clubs until he finally stuck in Colorado. He played a career high 68 NHL games and scored a career high nine-points. Guenin is ultra-physical and is there to smash the other team's stars. His partner Tyson Barrie is also having a career year. In his third season with the Avs, he's 13-25-38 in 64 GP, and a plus-17. Most importantly, he's provided five game-winning goals from the blue-line.
The pairing of Andre Benoit and Nick Holden provide additional offense. Benoit has 28 points, with eight of them coming on the power play. Holden is similar with 22 points, and seven of them being on the power play.
Minnesota has dressed seven (7!!) goalies this season, and will be relying on Ilya Bryzgalov, at least for Game One. As long as he doesn't remember what happened the last time he was in the playoffs, he'll be okay.
The Avalanche have Semyon Varlamov, and as long as he has a pulse, he's in net. Backup J.S. Giguere is likely in his last playoff run and would only take the net in a time of serious crisis for Colorado.
In the last 10, Colorado is 7-1-3 and Minnesota is 6-3-1. Both teams dropped their final games of the season.
The Avs lost to the guys who are usually healthy scratches on the Ducks, in overtime, on Teemu Selanne night, in a game that didn't mean anything. No biggie.
Minnesota's loss is pretty bad. They went down 7-3 to the not-playoff-bound Nashville Predators. You'd think it was because the Wild are resting their superstars, but nope! Parise, Koivu, Suter -- the gang was all there. Even worse, their Game 1 starter was in net and gave up five goals on 21 shots.
One coach is new, has the complete buy-in of his team, and is effing crazy. Did I mention he's got four Stanley Cup rings? They may have been as a player, but the man knows how to win.
The other guy has two of the highest-paid players in the league and produced less-than-spectacular results in his three seasons with Minny. He also looks like a combination of James Carville and Professor X.
ADVANTAGE: Colorado (especially in a coaches' brawl).
In the five game season series, there was only one power play goal scored and it was by Minnesota in the first meeting.
Fun fact: Both teams had an identical number of power play opportunities at 252; Minnesota was short-handed one-time more than Colorado, 250 vs. 249.
Colorado was fifth in the league (19.8%) scoring 50 power play goals. The top three point-getters are the usual suspects: O'Reilly (9-13-22), Duchene (5-12-17), and MacKinnon (8-9-17). Not having Duchene isn't ideal, but not a complete loss for the power play. Paul Stastny (4-11-15) and Eric Johnson (2-12-14) round out the top five. On the penalty kill, the Avs were 24th overall at 80.7%, allowing three short-handed goals
The Wild were 16th at 17.9% and 45 PPGs scored. Despite missing games with injury, Parise (14-6-20) and Koivu (2-16-18) lead the Wild in power play points; Pominville and Suter are right behind them at 17 power play points each. Even with android Ryan Suter at the helm, Minnesota's power play struggles. The Wild are 27th at 78.8% on the PK.
Series Slow Jam
"All my life" by K-Ci and JoJo from Joe Sakic to Patrick Roy for their playing and now managing/coaching lives together. "Allllll my liiife I've waited for some one like YOUUU, and I hope that you feel the same way tooooo."
Swipe left on ... Dany Heatley. He still plays in the NHL, who knew?! He had a mini-streak of 6 points in 5 games going into the Olympic break. When he returned, he put up 4 points in 17 games. He's also a team high minus-18. To put it in perspective, the next closest Wild player is at minus-7. The two-time 50-goal scorer will be a healthy scratch when the playoffs begin.
Swipe right on ... Everyone's favorite teenager, Nathan MacKinnon. He's 18, he's broken a Gretzky record, and going to win the Calder. Hell, he'd be on the cover of Canadian TeenBop or Canadian TigerBeat if those existed.
Colorado uses the vaporizer and smokes out the Wild in 5.