Jan 30, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog (92) and defenseman Jan Hejda (8) fight Minnesota Wild center Kyle Brodziak (21) in the third period at the Pepsi Center. The Avalanche defeated the Wild 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Stanley Cup Playoffs Preview :: Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild

Colorado Avalanche (C1) vs. Minnesota Wild (C4 – First Wild Card)

Playoff Series Schedule

Thursday, April 17

9:30 P.M.

Saturday, April 19

9:30 P.M.

Monday, April 21

7 P.M.

Thursday, April 24

9:30 P.M.

*Saturday, April 26

TBD

*Monday, April 28

TBD

*Wednesday, April 30

TBD

April 13, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) moves the puck against the Anaheim Ducks during the first period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick Roy‘s NHL career ended with a loss to the Minnesota Wild in 2003.

Now, he’s set to face the Wild in his playoff head coaching debut, having steered the ship for the most surprising team during the regular season. I don’t think anyone could have expected the Colorado Avalanche to post 113 points and steal the new Central Division from the Blues’ clutches in the last week of the season, not to mention the Stanley Cup-defending Chicago Blackhawks.

Alas, they did, and here they are, back in the playoffs for the first time since a first-round loss to San Jose in the 2009-10 season.

Youth was certainly served on this Colorado squad this season, as the average age of its top eight scorers is 23.25 years old, with Paul Stastny being the elder statesman of the group at the ripe age of 28.

Though he got off to a bit of a slow start, first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon‘s game turned around in the second half of the season, posting 41 points in 44 games as he found himself getting more playing time because of injuries in the lineup. In junior with the Halifax Mooseheads, MacKinnon showed he could be a big-game performer, posting two hat-tricks against Seth Jones and the Portland Winterhawks in the Memorial Cup as the two jockeyed for top draft billing, along with 61 points in 34 career playoff games with Halifax.

It’ll be interesting to see if MacKinnon can step up his game at the highest level. If he can, and you throw in contributions from captain Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O’Reilly, and if they stick around long enough, the return of Matt Duchene, the Avalanche are in position to make a lot of noise in the playoffs.

Apr 7, 2014; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Minnesota Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov (30) celebrates the win with teammate Zach Parise (11) over the Winnipeg Jets at the MTS Centre. Minnesota wins 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

On the other bench, head coach Mike Yeo will try to lead the Wild to their first playoff series victory since their run to the Western Conference final in 2002-03. After being bounced by the Blackhawks in the opening round of the playoffs last season, Minnesota’s first after landing coveted free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild won six of its final eight games to secure the first wild card berth in the Western Conference.

After a series of events even Lemony Snicket would consider unforunate, Ilya Bryzgalov finds himself back in the postseason after starting the season with the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL. Since being acquired from the Edmonton Oilers around the trade deadline, Bryzgalov has posted a 7-1-3 record with a 2.12 goals-against average and three shutouts.

However, in his last two playoffs, Bryzgalov has posted a 5-11 record with an .884 save percentage, with his playoff performance in 2012 serving as an early catalyst for the Philadelphia Flyers to buy him out last summer. He’ll need to turn things around quickly if the Wild hope to advance.

Meanwhile, Parise has found some solid form of late, posting 10 points (5 G, 5 A) in his final nine games, a nearly identical pace to what he posted in the 2008-09 season with the New Jersey Devils, where he scored a career-high 45 goals and 94 points.

Minnesota’s biggest concern is being somewhat top-heavy offensively, if you want to call it heavy offence. Jason Pominville registered his third career 30-goal season, while Parise added 29. After that, Nino Niederreiter is next with just 14 goals, so they’ll need to get some contributions from elsewhere in the lineup, especially for one Dany Heatley, who’s set to become an unrestricted free agent in July and will undoubtedly want to show he’s better than the player who scored 12 goals on a $7.5-million cap hit.

Prediction: Avalanche in six

Ignorance may well be bliss, and Colorado has made an entire season out of doing what it wasn’t supposed to do. The Avalanche’s top four scorers have a combined 12 playoff games between them, while Landeskog and MacKinnon will be making their playoff debuts.

However, they possessed a balanced attack, with five players with 20 or more goals, and 10 with 10 or more goals, including young defencemen Nick Holden and Tyson Barrie, both of whom hit double-digits despite missing 46 games between them.

Even with Suter set to be a workhorse yet again for Minnesota, I can’t see a way for Minnesota to overcome the firepower Colorado possesses. Their only shot is to keep games close and low-scoring while hoping for some bounces to come their way.

The bounces fell Colorado’s way in the regular season, as they won four of five games in the season series, with two coming in shootouts. While the playoffs are certainly a different animal, Colorado has the more talented team, so they should advance to play the winner between the Blues and Blackhawks.

Tags: Central Division Colorado Avalanche Minnesota Wild NHL Western Conference