Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wild, 15 Others Chase Lord Stanley

You can have your March Madness, your September football openers, your October baseball playoffs/cranking-up of football season, December bowls into NFL and college football playoffs, or whatever sports time of year you prefer.

Nothing makes goosebumps form on top of  goosebumps like the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I mean, well, um ... hold on. Just watch this.

Says it all.

First team to 16 wins gets the spoils. And the tears.

Anyway, the playoffs start Wednesday. I'll deliver some predictions later, but here are some thoughts on the Wild as they prepare to open up Thursday at Colorado.

This is really simple, in many ways. Colorado is a great story, but the story masks some problems with this team.

The nerds like to note that Colorado is the worst possession team in the tournament. The Avalanche get by that issue by carrying the best shooting percentage of any of these 16 teams. Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, and Gabriel Landeskog are elite. Semyon Varlamov had a great run this season.

However, Colorado's possession problem could rear its ugly head in this division bracket. St. Louis and Chicago are going to go to war for the right to advance, but both teams sport the kind of hard-nosed forwards it takes to break down the Avalanche.

So does Minnesota.

Ever since a 5-1 loss to St. Louis had the Wild on the brink of a lot of bad things, the group has banded together. If you're enough of a diehard, you probably know about the off-day "summit" the Wild on-ice leadership had in Phoenix after that St. Louis debacling. If not, stud beat writer Michael Russo wrote a lot about it, including here.

Bottom line: This team has been much more system-strong since that day off. Zach Parise made a comment after the St. Louis loss about the Blues' commitment to their system, and it was a subtle shot at his guys for a bevy of blue line turnovers that led to chances (and sometimes goals) for the opponents.

The Wild have been much better since then at getting pucks behind defensemen and going after them on the forecheck. It's one part of the success story, but it's a huge one, especially going into this best-of-seven.

Colorado isn't weak on defense, but the Avs aren't strong there, either. There are some young guys there, and some potentially vulnerable players. I'd like to see the Wild make them work for possession and make them earn their space up the rink. Colorado wants to play a rush game, but if the Wild can make them get away from firewagon hockey, the Avalanche can easily be beaten in this series.

Make Colorado break out more slowly, and make their forwards more engaged in the defensive zone. Puck retrievals and wall play take energy. Sap their will by making them earn every puck they get and every rush they're able to generate. Colorado has been really good this season at getting into run-and-gun type of games.

Remember the structure and the system. Stick to it, and good things will happen.

Of course, it ultimately comes down to goaltending. Varlamov has been great, and while Ilya Bryzgalov has been good for the Wild, the sample isn't very big. I did say when the Wild got him from Edmonton that I thought Bryzgalov would be solid playing for a team that has some structure in front of him, as Minnesota certainly does.

If Bryzgalov, who has a promising .923 even-strength save percentage, even matches what Varlamov (.933, by the way) can do, Minnesota probably wins. Ultimately, the talent gap in goal, which I do believe exists, is the biggest reason I have Colorado beating the Wild. If the Wild avoid getting suckered into run-and-gun hockey and get good goaltending, they very much have a shot in this series.

1 comment:

Matt Christians said...

Fontaine Starts today Brucey :)