And they meet again.
For the third time in 11 years, the Wild and Colorado Avalanche will go head-to-head in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
After 82 games and eight months of clawing for every point, the Wild’s regular season finally ended Sunday night with a 7-3 loss to the Nashville Predators.
“Like the last exhibition game before the start of the season, I’m just happy to have that game over with,” coach Mike Yeo said. “Everybody got through healthy and obviously we know that’s not the recipe.”
The Wild will open the best-of-seven first round against the Central Division champs Thursday in Denver.
“It feels like this last week has taken forever,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “You’re so close but so far away. It’s still another four days out. I’m just excited to get moving and get preparing.”
The Wild, which earned the first of two wild-card spots in the Western Conference, went 1-3-1 against the Avalanche this season. It is 32-14-6 against Colorado since March 5, 2006, and 13-3-3 in its past 19 games in Denver.
But this is a different Avalanche team from the downtrodden version Wild fans had grown accustomed to seeing in recent years. After all, there’s a reason the Avs were able to draft budding stars such as 18-year-old Nathan MacKinnon (first overall in 2013), 21-year-old Gabriel Landeskog (second overall in 2011) and 23-year-old Matt Duchene (third overall in 2009).
“They’ve got the whole package,” Wild captain Mikko Koivu said. “They left a lot — a lot — of good teams behind them. From the beginning to the end, they’ve been very strong. It’s going to be a tough, very big challenge.”
Colorado went from the second-worst team in the NHL last year (16 victories in the lockout-shortened season) to winning 52 games this season. It had the fourth-most-lethal offense in the NHL (Ryan O’Reilly is another forward the Wild better be wary of), and in Patrick Roy’s first season behind the Avs bench, goalie Semyon Varlamov broke his coach’s franchise record by winning 41 games.
“They are completely different than what they were last year,” said Wild leading scorer Jason Pominville. “They only added a couple players here or there, but their coaching staff must have done a great job there. They’re just playing with really, really good confidence. They’ve got a lot of skill up front that can make you pay.”
Defensively, Bloomington’s Erik Johnson turned into a horse of a blue-liner this season.
“It’ll be a ton of fun,” Johnson said of playing the Wild. “Since their inception, my dad [Bruce] has had season tickets. It’s going to be fun to go home and play Round 1 in the playoffs.”
The Avs, 8-1-2 in their final 11, ranked 14th in the NHL defensively, so if the Wild can stay away from a track meet with the faster, more skilled team and get pucks deep and go to work on their defensemen, the Wild might be successful.
“We can’t change who we are, and we don’t want to,” Koivu said.
The Wild and Colorado haven’t met since Jan. 30, a game in which the Wild’s attempted rally fell short in a 5-4 loss. Zach Parise scored two goals and had two assists that game.
A lot has changed with the Wild since then. The team closed the season 6-1-1 in its final eight games.
“We did a great job to really push hard and get our game where it needs to be,” veteran Matt Cooke said. “Not to cliché it, but let’s throw [Sunday’s game] out the window and move forward.”
Added Pominville: “We’ve beaten some good teams down the stretch, some teams that are the elite in the league [Boston, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and St. Louis] and have been really good in the playoffs the last few years. We’re heading into this the right way.”
The Wild will take Monday off, then ramp it up Tuesday and Wednesday before flying to Denver.
The franchise is familiar with the Avalanche in the postseason. In 2003, the Wild — playing in its first playoff series — rallied from 3-1 down to beat Colorado in the first round. Andrew Brunette scored the most famous goal in franchise history and sent Roy into retirement by scoring the series-clinching goal in overtime. In 2008, after the Wild won the Northwest Division, Jose Theodore and the Avs stoned the Wild in six games.
“Springtime is always a fun time of year for hockey,” Parise said, smiling.