The Minnesota Wild present an interesting puzzled for our beloved Colorado Avalanche to solve in the first round of The Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Wild boast an Elite defenseman in Ryan Suter, one of the top goal scorers form in close in Zach Parise as well as guys who have scored 30 goals recently in Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville. Add in emerging youngsters like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, and Jonas Brodin and the Wild have some legitimate talent for the Avalanche to contend with.
I believe there are a few factors which will decide this series which i have broken down below. Whichever team is most successful in these areas should take the series:
1. Will Ryan Suter Control the Pace of Play?
Suter played upwards of 38 minutes in a couple of playoff games last year when the Wild were bum-rushed by the Blackhawks. If Mike Yeo intends to play him this much again, the Avs will need to make him play the "tough minutes." Colorado, especially Nathan MacKinnon, needs to attack Suter with speed consistently through the neutral zone into the MIN defensive zone. He is fantastic at limiting the amount of time he is truly chasing the play and if MacKinnon and Duchene (if he returns) can force him to skate at their pace, the Avs will find more success.
This also applies to hitting Suter whenever possible. Landeskog and McGinn will be key factors to this series in this regard as will the bottom 6 of the Avs when they are on the ice with Suter. Patrick Roy should look to establish a matchup with the Avs 3rd line against the top Wild pairing while at home to free the scoring lines against a susceptible group of bottom 4 Wild defensemen.
2. Defensive Zone Exits for the Avs
There is an old coaches rule that pertains to the 10 feet on either side of the blue lines in hockey. If you are in that area and the puck does not get in/out, generally bad things happen. The blue lines in hockey force players to make decisions when under pressure and the Avs have a tendency to not get the puck out when they need to in these situations, causing them to extend the time they must defend. If the Avs defensemen can be successful in their zone exits without giving the puck away, it will allow their forwards to control the game and play how they would like to. The avs would rather play up and down the ice, limiting the Wild zone rushes where they are less effective. Zach Parise in front for long stretches of the net is a recipe for losing the series.
Player to watch here: Nick Holden, more on the defensive side than offensive. A bit of a disturbing trend late in the season was that Holden had about a giveaway per game at or near his defensive blue line. He will need to clean this up, especially if he is paired against one of the top Wild lines. PS he is not alone in this, just has emerged as a trend lately.
3. The Avs need PP goals
The Wild will have the Avs PP well scouted and I expect them to take away Tyson Barrie at the point, MacKinnon down low, and Holden on the back door. If the Avs can still execute these sets, more power to them. What really concerns me is the Avs zone entries on the power play without Matt Duchene. Parenteau's return will certainly help in this regard but the Avs need to find a way to consistently enter the offensive zone and establish their system.
4. EJ and Hejda need to shut down a line
Probably the Parise line. Paired with Stastny's line they need to come out on the positive or even with the Wild's top line. The Avs have better scoring depth than the Wild and I am fairly confident the MacKinnon line will be able to best the Wild's second line.
5. The Avs 4th line must play a minimal role on the road
When Patrick can get the matchup he wants at home, there is a good place for the 4th line of the Avs. Mainly giving the first 3 a break. But with 2 top 6 players out these guys are new NHL'ers and are not adept at controlling play. It is of the utmost importance that they not get caught against the Parise line.
6. Tyson Barrie
He's the wildcard in this series. If Tyson Barrie produces points from the back end like he has recently, the Avs should have a relatively easy time outpacing the Wild. Minnesota will be sure to play the body on him hard whenever possible, especially with his recent UBI. If he can find room to dance in the neutral and offensive zones, the Avs should be able to produce enough offense to simply outscore the Wild.
7. Shoot Naydinn
Seriously - The Avs need to shoot from everywhere on Mr. Universe. He is a goalie with a historically fragile mental state and just gave up 7 in Minnesota's last (meaningless) game. This is especially true for MacKinnon who is like, good at shooting. If he can take 4-5 shots per game he should end the series with a couple of goals. He will need to be a primary option for scoring in order for the Avs to succeed without Matt Duchene.
8. Win the goaltending battle
Varlamov is a better goalie than Ilya Bryzgalov but hockey is littered with stories of hot goalies winning teams series in which they were outclassed. If one goalie gets hot, it can win a series for a team. My money is on Varly to play better.
Avs in 6. I think the Avs have enough speed in order to prevail over the less fleet of foot Wild. The Avs will need to take the body in front of the net on Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Co. If Varlamov outplays Bryzgalov, which he should, the Avs could ice this series before Matt Duchene can come back and make his mark. Here's saying Bryz steals one game but the Wild can't solve Varly mostly in a closely contested series.
Wild fans realize that signing two 30 year old players to $98M contracts is not the way to win the Stanley Cup. Their youth is quality, but not quite the multiple high end players you need to win a Cup in the National League. Parise and Suter are great but unless they sign a legitimate goaltender they will not be a true contender to come out of the West,