After approximately four weeks, the Avalanche faithful will see the return of Matt Duchene. There's still an "if" going into tonight's Game 6 against the Minnesota Wild based on Patrick Roy's insistence that he will be a game-time decision.
Yeah, right. We all know he's going to play.
So what does that mean for the Avalanche? Even more important, what does that mean for the Wild?
The return of Duchene will bring Patrick Roy options. While the coach has stated that he'll play Dutchy on the fourth line and in power play situations, you'd be a fool to think that won't change at some point during the first period. The center will be back on a line with Ryan O'Reilly and PA Parenteau or Jaime McGinn. That being said, the ability to pick and choose the places in which he'll use Duchene gives Roy an advantage when it comes to match ups.
Duchene adds fire power. It's no secret that the Avalanche has been a bit of one-line offense this series. Secondary scoring has been limited, made more painful by the loss of defenseman Tyson Barrie. Duchene didn't get to be a point-per-game player in the regular season by accident. He's a goal-scorer through and through, able to pick the chinks in the armor of any goaltender.
More one-on-one battles will be won. Roy said a key to the game 5 win was how much better the Colorado boys were doing in the corners, along the boards, and behind the net. Duchene is arguably the best player on the team in that area. Combining his strength on the puck with his creativity, Dutchy can both maintain possession and take it back, even when double-teamed.
Speaking of winning those battles, Duchene's play will encourage more net crashing. His ability to set up plays is dynamic, capitalizing on winning the man-on-man battles by dishing the puck to his linemates in or on the edges of the crease. Knowing that he's capable of doing that at an elite level, you're sure to find O'Reilly pouncing on those opportunities.
There will be another voice of determination in the locker room, as well as on the bench and ice. Remember this? That was taken after the Avs lost to the San Jose Sharks during Duchene's rookie season. The kid is a competitor, and he can certainly will a victory if needed. He's a game changer, bringing an infectious energy of positivity and confidence.
O'Reilly's effectiveness will improve, which will be scary. So far, O'Reilly has scored two goals and two assists in this round of the playoffs. Still, he's looked a little lost at times as a center iceman. Reuniting with Duchene puts him back where he's been so successful this season, becoming once again a force to be reckoned with.
Match ups will be more difficult. Thus far in this series, save game 2, Mike Yeo has been able to effectively shut down the Avs' goal scorers. Because Colorado really had only one line that presented a threat, the Wild could focus on it with both systems and personnel. Adding Duchene into the mix gives the Avalanche a second scoring line that is just as threatening as the trio of Paul Stastny, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. Yeo will need to find talent equally capable of stopping an offensive juggernaut or double shift the players who have shown success in that regard thus far.
Ryan Suter will wear down as he'll see even tougher minutes. It's pretty much a given that Yeo will lean even more heavily on his minute-munching defenseman. Given Duchene's physical play along the boards, those minutes will be more exhausting as he'll have to bring his A-game against two lines instead of one. It's going to be grueling for him, and we may see the workhorse falter and get frustrated. A frustrated Suter is a penalized Suter.
On the topic of penalties, the Wild will see more penalty kills. Of course, that means there will also be more fuel for the conspiracy fire, but the fact remains that Duchene draws more penalties than he takes. It's worth noting, though, that unless the power play improves, those additional minutes on the man advantage won't mean shit.
Fortunately, the penalty kill will suffer. The Avs regain Duchene's creativity and vision with the man advantage, and that will create a more passive penalty kill from the Wild. You cannot rush Duchene on the power play without risking a saucer pass to an open teammate who can bury the puck.
The ice will open up, forcing the Wild to play more of the Avs' game. Duchene's puck control and quick lateral movements will improve the Avs' ability to exit their zone and gain speed through center ice. Speed is the last thing the Wild want their opponents to find. It will force Minnesota's defenders to give Duchene space, and Duchene plus space equals scoring chances.
The return of Matt Duchene will cause problems for the Wild. He adds a spark and dynamic to the Avalanche that will see it return to its regular season form, becoming once again the team that beat every other team in the league and took the season series against its current opponent. With Duchene in the line up, Yeo will need to make adjustments, but he may find he simply does not have the talent to do so effectively.