Hands up those of you who figured the Colorado Avalanche, under rookie head coach Patrick Roy, would roll to a division title and finish within shouting distance of the top seed in the conference? OK, Joe Sakic, you can put your hand down. In spite of the absence of top center Matt Duchene, who was injured in late March and won't be back until late in the first round (if initial reports on the timetable for his recovery are accurate), the Avs took advantage of stumbles by both the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues to jump to the top of the division and gain what could be home-ice advantage through at least the first two rounds. A return to prominence could see the Avs earn individual awards for coaching, goaltending with Semyon Varlamov setting a franchise record with 41 wins (beating Roy's record of 40) and rookie of the year with Nathan MacKinnon leading all first-year players in goals (tied) and points. Meanwhile, after listing badly in the final month, the Wild righted the ship and in fact played their best hockey of the season during the stretch run, winning four out of five heading into the playoffs and earning points against some of the top teams along the way. The Wild have proved to be a resilient bunch, collecting more points (21) when trailing entering the third period than any other team in the league.
Avalanche: Defense corps
Last season, the Avs were 29th in goals allowed per game. This season, they improved to 14th. That, friends, is a monumental shift in how a team plays the game. Now, go ahead, name six Avs defenders. Erik Johnson is easy. Maybe Jan Hejda or Cory Sarich. But how about Andre Benoit, Nick Holden, Tyson Barrie -- who inexplicably had 13 goals, including five game-winners -- or Nate Guenin? No? Didn't think so. But this collection of draft picks and off-the-radar acquisitions has formed a solid if unspectacular crew. Johnson leads with 39 points but it really is defense by committee. Now, having proved doubters wrong during the regular season, can they continue to do the job when the games figure to become appreciably tighter against a Wild group that will try to force the Avs defenders into turnovers in their own zone?
Wild: Ilya Bryzgalov
Bryzgalov has thus far silenced the skeptics who wondered at his trade deadline acquisition from Edmonton. He finished the season on a 5-1-1 run, with two shutouts, and the rest of the lineup seems to have developed a comfort level with the veteran netminder. But, the reality is that Bryzgalov hasn't played in the postseason since 2012 and he was less than stellar that spring for the Flyers, who would later buy him out, so unimpressed were they with his play when it mattered most. Bryzgalov also played poorly the previous spring, in 2011, for the Phoenix Coyotes, who were swept by Detroit in the first round a few weeks before he landed the big contract in Philadelphia. Some experts believe the Wild will have the weakest goaltending of all eight Western Conference teams and perhaps the entire 16-team playoff grid. With rookie Darcy Kuemper injured and Josh Harding not ready to play, the pressure of disproving that theory and sawing off the Vezina-worthy Varlamov falls squarely on Bryzgalov's shoulders.
Hero In Waiting
Avalanche: Paul Stastny
Interesting that there was discussion at the trade deadline that the Avs might move veteran center Paul Stastny, who can become an unrestricted free agent this summer. They didn't, and with Duchene sidelined with a knee injury, Stastny has risen to the occasion and had collected 12 points in his past 10 games entering Sunday's finale against Anaheim. He is a two-time Olympian and provides a terrific veteran presence in the Avs room. He'll need to keep showing the way.
Wild: Matt Moulson
We know that Zach Parise is a gamer and Ryan Suter is likely to be a finalist for the Norris Trophy and, if Mikael Granlund can return to the lineup, he has shown he is a player who rises to the occasion with his play at the Olympics. But if Granlund can't go, look for Matt Moulson to step into the breach. His production has been OK, although he has managed to score in only five games since being acquired by the Wild from the Buffalo Sabres. He has three game-winners but only one power-play goal since coming to Minnesota. That will have to change for the Wild to stay close and Moulson, playing for a new contract as a free agent this summer, has that capability.
The Avs are green when it comes to playoff pressure and what it takes to win (with all due respect to their coach, who happened to be one of the game's greatest money players). Maxime Talbot has a ring courtesy of the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins and Sarich won a Cup in 2004 with Tampa (Alex Tanguay is also a Cup winner but is injured). Does it matter? Yes. Especially if Duchene won't be back early, which puts more pressure on youngsters such as Gabriel Landeskog, who had scored in just one of his last eight games heading into play Sunday or MacKinnon, who has been everything as advertised as the first-overall pick in last June's draft.
The Wild might be able to grind out a couple of games 2-1 but logic suggests they're going to have to open it up at some point in order to stay close and have a chance at the upset. But this Wild lineup features only three 20-goal scorers: Jason Pominville, Parise and the newly acquired Moulson. But with injuries to Granlund (his return is uncertain), the Wild are going to need Charlie Coyle, in his second playoff run, and Nino Niederreiter, who found a home after being cast off by the New York Islanders, to produce. If the supporting case can't take the pressure off Parise and Pominville, the Wild won't be long for the tournament.
OK, we know a seven or eight seed is going to win a round. Might be more than one that does so. The Wild took a leap of faith with Bryzgalov and so will we, figuring that the absence of Duchene and the inexperience of the Avs will ultimately cost them against a more savvy Wild team that's been through some ups and downs to get here. Wild in 7