Monday night the Colorado Avalanche closed out their first divisional series of the regular season with a 4-2 win over the Dallas Stars. The Avalanche, who struggled for years in the Northwest Division improved greatly in the realigned Central Division, winning their first season series against the Stars 4-1-0. Tonight, they'll look to earn a little vengeance against an old Northwest Division foe as they close out their season series with the Minnesota Wild. Both teams are riding one game winning streaks heading into tonights matchup, and both teams have enjoyed similar success over the last few weeks. However, despite some signs of life from the streaky Wild (6-3-1 in their last 10), the Avalanche continue to gain ground on their division rivals, going 7-2-1 over the same span. There's lots of hockey left to play, but a win tonight would go a long way in securing the Avalanche's 3rd place position in the Central Division. So far, the Avalanche have earned 7 of 8 possible points against the Wild, and with a win tonight the Avs would take the season series 4-0-1. More importantly, a regulation win tonight would put the Avalanche 9 points ahead of the Wild with 3 games in hand.
Like the Avalanche, the Wild recently weathered a storm of injuries to some important players. Mikko Koivu is on injured reserve with a broken ankle alongside goaltender Josh Harding, who remains out with an undisclosed illness. Harding has been instrumental to the Wild's success this season and led the NHL in both GAA (1.65) and SV% (.933) (that is until Ben Scrivens record breaking 59 save shutout skyrocketed his season save percentage to .937). Now I've got no love for the Wild, but Josh Harding is undoubtably one of the season's best stories and most likable players. Here's to a speedy recovery to the Wild goaltender and as many 1-0 losses as possible the rest of the way down the stretch.
The Wild did get some good news this week, however, as Zach Parise rejoined the team after missing two weeks with a broken foot. Parise is an instrumental part of the Wild's offense, ranking 2nd on the team in goals and 4th in points and he reminded the league of his importance to the team with a 3-point night Tuesday as the Wild handed the Ducks their second regulation loss on home ice this season. Without their big offensive guns like Parise and Koivu, the Wild have been scoring by committee in order to stay afloat in the Western Conference. They have just three players with double digits in goals (Pominville: 21, Parise: 16, Fontaine: 12) compared to six players for the Avalanche (O'Reilly: 19, MacKinnon: 18, Duchene: 17, Stastny: 15, Landeskog: 14, McGinn: 12). Forgive me if this sounds familiar, but if the Wild want to win, they'll likely have to rely on their defense and goaltending and "trap" the Avalanche into a low scoring affair. Get it? Trap? Because thats how they play sometimes. Like the rest of the Western Conference, goalie injuries don't seem to matter for the Wild, as their 3rd stringer Darcy Kuemper has been solid in net, posting a .924 SV% and a 2.26 GAA. Besides, if he struggles then the Wild can always resort to the Edmonton Oilers' new defensive system. For more despicable coverage on the Wild check out our friends at Hockey Wilderness.
Wild Projected Lineup:
Zach Parise - Charlie Coyle - Nino Niederreiter
Dany Heatley - Mikael Granlund - Jason Pominville
Matt Cooke - Kyle Brodziak - Justin fontaine
Michael Rupp - Erik Haula - Torrey Mitchell
Ryan Suter - Jonas Brodin
Marco Scandella - Nate Prosser
Keith Ballard - Clayton Stoner
IR: Mikko Koivu, Jared Spurgeon
On the Avalanche's side, most of this week's drama has been off the ice. Some strange reports out of Montreal and the repeated benching of P.A. Parenteau in favor of John Mitchell, Cody McLeod, Marc Andre Cliche and Patrick 6:21 Bordeleau have trade rumors swirling around this team before the Olympic Break trade freeze. It's a well-known fact that the Avalanche are looking to use their depth at offense to acquire a defenseman, and surrendering 40+ shots like they did in Dallas on Monday probably isnt doing much to slow that process down. Unless the Avs can tighten their possession game up in a hurry, we're likely going to see a lot more rumors over the next two weeks. While Adrian Dater was quick to refute rumors of a Parenteau-Bourque trade with Montreal, he did suggest (kind of?) that Parenteau may be on the outs in Denver. The first scratch made sense: giving P.A. a break during a busy stretch just like Tanguay, so as not to over-work his knee fresh off of IR. This second scratch could mean something else. Maybe Parenteau needs an extra night for the knee. Maybe Roy doesn't want to change his winning lineup (as he said in his post-practice presser Wednesday). Or maybe Parenteau has fallen out of favor in Colorado and is being held out of the lineup in preparation for a trade. Parenteau's 9G 16A in 41GP is a far cry from his team leading 18G and 25A in 48GP last year, but his play hasn't been bad enough to warrant sitting out in favor of John Mitchell or anyone on the 4th line. There must be something more behind Parenteau's scratching, but for now the Avalanche will have to beat the Wild without their dynamic winger.
Avalanche Projected Lineup:
Gabriel Landeskog - Paul Stastny - Alex Tanguay
Jamie McGinn - Matt Duchene - Ryan O`Reilly
John Mitchell - Nathan MacKinnon - Max Talbot
Patrick Bordeleau - Marc Andre Cliche - Cody McLeod
Jan Hejda - Erik Johnson
Nate Guenin - Andre Benoit
Nick Holdern - Tyson Barrie
Scratch: P.A. Parenteau, Ryan Wilson
IR: Cory Sarich, David van der Gulik
Season Series So Far:
Nov 29, 2013: Avalanche 3 - Wild 1
Giguere: W, 27-28, .964 SV%
Harding: L, 18-20, .900 SV%
Nov 30, 2013: Avalanche 3 - Wild 2 (SO)
Varlamov: W, 35-37, .946 SV%
Harding: SOL, 23-25, .920 SV%
Dec 14, 2013: Wild 2 - Avalanche 1 (SO)
Varlamov: SOL, 26-27, .963 SV%
Harding: W, 26-27, .963
Jan 11, 2014: Avalanche 4 - Wild 2
Varlamov: W, 25-27, .926%
Backstrom: L, 14-17, .824%
Series Top 3 Performers:
- I know people are tired of me bringing this up, but Matt Duchene needs to start scoring. It's been 22 games since he's scored a goal at even strength, and while he's still putting up plenty of assists, he's just not playing the hockey we know he's capable of. If you're in the group that thinks it's all a matter of bad bounces and luck, ask yourself: Two months ago people around the NHL were talking about Matt Duchene as one of the most dominant players in the league, would you put him in that category over his last 5 games? Over his last 10? 15? I wouldnt.
- Nathan MacKinnon has points in 4 of his last 5 games (3G 3A).
- O'Reilly, MacKinnon, and Duchene are tied with 4 GWG each. Cliche and McLeod are the only regular forwards without at least 1 GWG.
- The Avalanche sit 8 points back of the division leading Blackhawks. They lead the Blackhawks by one ROW and hold 4 games in hand.
- The Wild are the Avalanche's last Western Conference opponent before the Olympic Break. Next they take on the league-worst Sabres at home before taking a 4-game trip through New York and Philadelphia.