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Colorado Avalanche Game Day: the Wild, Wild Western Conference

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NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Minnesota Wild Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Western Conference is a laughingstock this year, once you get past the first few teams in each of the two respective divisions.

If it seems like the Wild Card race is just bananas for the teams clamoring for the two sports, that’s because it is. According to The Athletic’s Tyler Dellow, the two Wild Card spots are on pace to be the worst-performing Wild Card teams in recent memory; neither of the two spots are currently on pace to put up even 90 points, and there are six teams all clamoring for the pair of positions without much in the way of a standout franchise so far.

The Avalanche started off on top, putting up a high-flying opening act to their season to soar to the top of the Central Division. They’ve lost 11 of their last 14, though, and now sit in a precarious position in the heavily-fought battle — ironically, against another team knee-deep in the thick of things:

The Wild are currently two spots above the Avalanche but just one point ahead, sitting third in the Central through an identical 49 games. One of the rare Western Conference teams that’s actually been able to string together a few successful games in January, they were miserable for a stretch before finally getting their act together to put together a 6-4-0 record in their last 10.

If Colorado wins, they’ll force Minnesota to drop to the first of the two Wild Card spots — but if Minnesota wins, they’ll pull even farther ahead in the Central race just ahead of the All Star break. And if one of Vancouver, Anaheim, or Arizona take home a win in a Colorado loss, the Avalanche will drop out of their playoff spot altogether.

It’s a four-point game for sure — but in this instance, it feels more like a showdown in the Wild, Wild Western Conference.

THE AVALANCHE

Forward

Gabriel Landeskog - Nathan MacKinnon - Mikko Rantanen
Colin Wilson - Carl Soderberg - J.T. Compher
Matt Calvert - Alexander Kerfoot - Sven Andrighetto
Gabriel Bourque - Sheldon Dries - Matt Nieto

Defense

Samuel Girard - Ian Cole
Nikita Zadorov - Tyson Barrie
Patrik Nemeth - Ryan Graves

Ryan Graves is back up, hoping to move the needle a bit in the bottom pairing while the defensive corps tries to survive without Erik Johnson.

Johnson skated with Timmins this morning, and although he wasn’t in a no-contact jersey he’s not ready to return from injury just yet. Given that the team’s goaltending has been lacklustre lately, they’ll likely need an all-world performance from their blue line even without Johnson in order to keep the score low.

Now more than ever, the league is looking to see if anyone on Colorado outside of their top line can consistently produce. Although the top trio are headed to the All Star Game together, the fact that they’re dangerously close to entering the break on the outside of the playoff window is something they should be worried about.

THE WILD

Jordan Greenway - Eric Staal - Charlie Coyle
Jason Zucker - Mikko Koivu - Mikael Granlund
Zach Parise - Victor Rask - Pontus Aberg
Marcus Foligno - Joel Eriksson-Ek - Luke Kunin

Ryan Suter - Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin - Greg Pateryn
Brad Hunt - Nick Seeler

The Wild have been doing everything they can to move the needle and keep themselves in the playoff race, although their most recent moves have been less than awe-inspiring. They swapped Nino Niederreiter — who had two goals in the first period of his second game for Carolina alone — for Victor Rask, and then added Brad Hunt to shore up a defensive corps that’s badly limping along without an injured Matt Dumba.

They’ll be taking it easy on Hunt, giving their defensive corps some weirdness, by the way:

THE STARTERS

It hasn’t even been a full month since Jared Bednar proposed that he was going to stop announcing his starter ahead of the game, so clearly the tactic wasn’t moving the needle like he’d hoped it would (not altogether surprising, all things considered). He confirmed before the game that Philipp Grubauer will get the nod, hoping to bring the beleaguered backup’s numbers up from their current place near the bottom of the league’s goaltenders. His .895 save percentage in all situations is better than just six guys with 15 or more starts, while he has the 12th-worst cumulative Goals Saved Above Average among 69 goaltenders with qualifying starts.

On the other side of the ice, Devan Dubnyk will bring a mercurial season’s performance to the net, hoping to display his Vezina talents instead of his ‘former waivers’ talents. He has a .913 save percentage on the year and has 23 quality starts, but he’s also played in 40 games already — meaning that he’s been just average or worse in nearly half of his games. He also has eight Really Bad Starts (games with an .855 save percentage or worse), which put him tied for second in the NHL. That’s the kind of inconsistency that worries fans, although it may be Colorado’s gain.