Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Minnesota Wild Keys To Victory

Tomorrow the Wild and Avs take part in the third all-time playoff meeting between the two clubs. We took a introductory look at how the two clubs stack up against each other this year on Monday, going over your basic stats and what not.

So now as we dive in to the more specifics of this series, we are going to be looking specifically at what the Wild need to do in order to beat the Avalanche in round one.

Sharp defense and goaltending: This here is a no brainer, but it must be emphasized. The Wild need to have very strong performances from their defense and their netminder in this series. Mike Yeo mentioned a few days ago that getting into a track meet with this team is not advisable, so the defense and goaltending will need to be at their best.

Colorado is a team who lives off their opponents mistakes in the offensive and neutral zone. If you cough up the puck, they have incredibly skilled forwards who can capitalize very quickly and easily. Even without Matt Duchene and John Mitchell, their top six is still very dangerous.

Ilya Bryzgalov might be the best acquisition for any team at the trade deadline this year. Since being acquired for a fourth round draft pick in early March, Bryz has gone 7-1-3 with a 2.12 GAA and .911 save percentage. If the Wild want any chance of getting past Colorado, they will need him to be that same goaltender. His past playoff performances have been...well...not very good.

Get bodies to the net: Whether you like it or not, Semyon Varlamov has been one of the best goaltenders in the league this season. For the season, Varlamov was 41-14-6 with a 2.41 GAA and .927 save percentage. His 41 wins were the most in the NHL.

But what was learned in the season series against Colorado is that Varlamov is not easy to beat (Wild scored nine goals in four Varlamov starts). How do you beat him? Get guys in front of the net.

Firing a shot where the goaltender has a clean line of sight to the puck will almost always favor the goaltender. And in Varlamov's case, he is no different. He will stop it. The Wild need to attack the net more and have some of their bigger players park in front of Varlamov, keeping him from seeing the puck cleanly. If they can do that and get some shots through all the traffic, their odds of winning games will increase significantly.

Control the puck: The Avs are one of the worst puck possession teams in the league. Like, bottom five bad. Yet somehow, they won 52 games this season largely in part to some stellar goaltending and high shooting percentage.

If the Wild want to keep up with the Avs, they need to dominate the play like they did in all five of the team's meetings this year (a check of the puck possession numbers from each game indicates that the Wild were the better team in all five games).

If you sit there and say "Well the Avs won four out of five games against Minnesota, so clearly they did something right", you are true to a very certain point. The Wild were only outscored by Colorado 16-11. Three out of five games were decided by one goal. The Avs did just barely enough to win against the Wild. If the Wild can control the puck with authority, they are bound to run into some success in this series.

Board play: A huge underrated part of the Wild's play against the Avs this season was their play along the boards.

A look at each of the five games played between the two teams shows that the Wild were far and away the better team along the boards. Some of the Wild's best scoring chances against Colorado came after winning battles along the boards in the offensive zone. Continued dominance along the boards will work heavily in the Wild's favor and will also contribute to the above mentioned puck control.

Special Teams: Without a doubt, this best of seven series will be decided by special teams. Neither is overly good at the penalty kill, and both have been solid on the power play (although Colorado is clearly the better PP team).

Coming into the series, both the Wild and Avalanche have bottom ten penalty killing units in the league (Minnesota with 78.8%-4th worst, Colorado with 80.7%-7th worst). On the other side, the Avs PP ranks fifth in the league with a 19.8%, while Minnesota has a 17.9% and has been a bit more efficient lately.

The Wild penalty kill had about a week in late March-early April where they seemed to have taken a turn for the better as they killed off 23 straight penalties. But ever since the streak ended, the penalty kill has regressed back to its old form and Wild fans have returned to cringing when the team takes a penalty.

Minnesota obviously wants to kill off the penalties they take but a concerning trend in the past couple of weeks has been the number of penalties they take each night. Its also where Minnesota has been taking the penalties, that has been concerning too, as they have been taking far too many penalties in the offensive zone.

Should Minnesota want to keep hopes of winning this series, they will have to A) limit the number of penalties they take and B) get the penalty kill back up to decent levels. The Wild PP is crucial here too, dont just think the Wild are going to win if they can kill off penalties.

This is how the Wild will beat Colorado. Sharp defense and goaltending, get bodies out front of the net, control the puck, win the battles along the boards, and special teams. If they can adequately follow these five steps, they win the series.

Lets hope they do just that.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesferrell

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