The Colorado Avalanche and Wild have returned to their identities of yesteryear.
Back when Patrick Roy was backstopping the Avs to two Stanley Cups, they were an explosive, in-your-face, intimidating juggernaut.
When the Hall of Famer became the team’s rookie coach last summer, Roy said he wanted to take advantage of the team’s impressive speed and skill by getting back to playing the way the Avalanche did once upon a time.
Similarly, when Hall of Fame coach Jacques Lemaire guided the Wild for seven seasons, Minnesota was one of the stingiest, most disciplined teams in the NHL. That was especially highlighted when the Wild upset Roy and Colorado in the 2003 playoffs en route to a shocking run to the Western Conference finals.
Mike Yeo has made defense the Wild’s bread and butter once again. Thursday night, when first round of the playoffs open between the Avalanche and Wild, it will be a battle of the West’s third-best offense vs. fourth-best defense.
“That’s probably the biggest test for us,” Yeo said. “The style of the two teams is not the same. Are we going to go out and control the game and play it in the manner that we want to play it or are we lured into the way they want to play the game?”
The Central Division champion Avalanche, which finished 29th in the NHL last year, became the first team since the league expanded to 21 teams in 1979 to go from the bottom three to the top three in a single season.
A giant reason is Colorado’s depth up front. From dynamic 18-year-old Nathan MacKinnon, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, to captain Gabriel Landeskog to two-way horse Ryan O’Reilly, the Avalanche salivate during frenetic games.
The Avalanche will try its best to cajole the Wild into that up-and-down, trade chance-for-chance game. The Wild isn’t skilled or fast enough to get into a track meet. Yeo wants the Wild to avoid high-risk plays and manage the puck well.
“No turnovers,” Zach Parise answered when asked the biggest key to beating Colorado. “You say that about a lot of teams, but especially these guys. They’re probably one of the best transition teams. Their group of forwards, [there’s] some unbelievable skill that they’ve got up front.
“You never want to give them any free chances, free opportunities.”
The Wild must limit turnovers at both blue lines, get pucks deep and put the Avalanche’s young and inexperienced defensemen in, as Parise said, “uncomfortable spots.”
“When we do that, we’re a pretty good team,” Parise said. “When we don’t do that, when we don’t skate, we allow the other team to come through us pretty easily.”
One line that Yeo hopes helps the Wild dictate its game is the Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Nino Niederreiter line. Not only will that trio be asked to shut down Colorado’s more prolific forwards (especially when Yeo can get preferred matchups at home), it will be asked to set the tone on the forecheck.
That line has had strong games in Colorado this season.
“When we’re talking about the grind of a playoff series, we want to make sure that every opportunity there is to finish a check, to make it hard on their skilled guys, on their defensemen, to let them know that we’re coming, those guys are going to have to be leaders in that regard,” Yeo said. “Plus, they have the ability to create and be strong in the offensive zone.
“We need them to be a tough line to play against.”
Scoring goals always is a chore for the Wild, and that was especially true in last year’s playoffs when the Wild scored seven times in five games vs. eventual champion Chicago.
“Last year, we just didn’t have the puck. Let’s be honest. We never had the puck,” Parise said. “It’s tough to score when you’re chasing it all game.”
But Parise added, “We have more proven scorers on the roster than we did last year.”
Skilled playmaker Mikael Granlund is expected to return from a head injury and make his playoff debut between veteran scorers Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville. The Parise-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle line was terrific down the stretch.
The one area where the Wild has the edge is playoff experience.
Judging by Colorado’s lineup in at least Tuesday’s practice, seven forwards and five defensemen might make their playoff debuts Thursday night.
“Whenever you do something, the more you do it, the more comfortable you feel, just like driving your car or riding a bike,” said Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, who has played 44 playoff games. “The more you do it, the better you get at it.”