Five things to watch for Avalanche-Wild Game 7

The Colorado Avalanche host the Minnesota Wild for Game 7 of their Western Conference opening-round...

The Colorado Avalanche host the Minnesota Wild for Game 7 of their Western Conference opening-round series on Wednesday night. (USA Today)

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:23 AM ET

It will be a lucky seven for one side and a date with the defending Stanley Cup champs

It’ll be unlucky for the other.

The Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild have duked it out six times during their opening-round series and decided only that they need one more dance on Wednesday night in the Mile High City to determine who meets the awaiting Chicago Blackhawks in the second round of the NHL’s playoff tournament.

It’s been a topsy-turvy set already, but the crowning moment will come on Wednesday in Denver’s Pepsi Center. We have no idea who’ll be sipping from the cup of victory, but here are five things to watch when the puck drops.

Loving that home cooking

It’s been a tasty six pack of wins for the hosts already this series. That should bode well for the Avs, shouldn’t it?

Colorado had a solid regular-season home record and ended with three wins in the final four games before heading into the playoffs.

On the other side, the Wild posted a paltry 17-17-7 road performance during the regular season on top of losing all three games in Denver during this set.

Another advantage: Colorado, right?

However, the last time the Avalanche skated in a Game 7, it was the 2003 series against the Wild, a 3-2 overtime victory for Minnesota. That game also happens to be the final game in the illustrious goaltending career for current Avs head coach Patrick Roy.

The Wild franchise has won both times a playoff series has reached seven games, both of them in that 2003 run to the Western Conference final.

As the Avalanche, the franchise has a 4-4 mark in deciding games.

Any of that past history won’t mean much when they hit the ice for what should be a thriller, but history tends to repeat itself.

No Avalanche of power-play goals

For all the offensive capabilities the Avs boast, their man-advantage time has been a downright disappointment against the Wild.

It’s a trend that goes beyond the first six games of their best-of-seven series.

In the five regular-season clashes, Colorado’s power play was skunked, blanked against 11 chances despite winning four of the five clashes, and losing the other in a shootout.

The turnaround hasn’t happened in this series.

Minnesota’s penalty killers have surrendered only two power-play goals against 22 opportunities. Moreover, the Wild have a shorthanded goal to go against that 91.9% success rate.

If that’s not bad enough, one of Colorado’s man-advantage markers came into an empty net to seal the 4-2 Game 2 victory.

The inability to score on the power play was the defining moment for the St. Louis Blues in the deciding game of their series against the Blackhawks.

The Avs had a top-5 power play in the regular season, while the Wild placed 27th in killing off infractions through the 82-game slate.

Colorado’s chances of winning will improve exponentially if the power play gets in gear.

Lining ‘em up

The Colorado top trio of centre Paul Stastny, captain Gabriel Landeskog and rookie sensation Nathan Mackinnon has been absolutely dominating on home ice and quiet on the road in this series.

Those three have combined for nine goals and 23 points so far this series, with Mackinnon (2-8-10) leading the way. All of his points have come at home.

Matt Duchene’s return from a knee injury last game was a success, even in the loss since he set up a power-play goal and gobbled 18 minutes of ice time, will help the Colorado cause. Duchene and his linemates, Ryan O’Reilly and P.A. Parenteau, gives the team a second potent trio for the Wild, and top defenceman Ryan Suter, to have to worry about.

Having the last change on home ice, it’ll be interesting to see how Avs coach Patrick Roy chooses to deploy his top couple of lines.

Likewise, a great study will be the way Wild bench boss Mike Yeo uses his defence pairings in an attempt to keep the Avalanche in check.

Which makes man can steal the win?

So, going back a few months, who would have guessed Darcy Kuemper would be the goaltender to take the net for the Wild in a Game 7?

You lie.

A team which had three veterans in Josh Harding, Niklas Backstrom (both unavailable) and Ilya Bryzgalov, is relying on Kuemper, the soon-to-be 24-year-old Saskatoon product to keep their season alive … again.

Kuemper, a sixth-round choice in the 2009 NHL Draft, has been outstanding in his first NHL playoffs, with a sparkling 1.53 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. So far, he’s seemed unfazed by the big-game moment, but a Game 7 clash has an extra element for a young goalie to deal with.

At the other end, Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov will suit up for a fourth Game 7 game. He has a 1-2 record in those game, all coming while he played for the Washington Capitals.

It will be curious to see whether the demons from those disappointing clinching games while with the Capitals affect Varlamov or he can exorcise them.

The Barrie factor

Matt Cooke’s suspension deserving knee-on-knee hit on Colorado defenceman Tyson Barrie has been a factor in this series.

Counting the game in which Barrie was hit – which garnered the Wild forward a seven-game banishment – the Avs have just one victory, lost three times and scored just six goals, one into an empty net. This is a team which scored nine times in the first two games (one empty netter).

As appalling as it sounds, Cooke’s action – the sixth of his controversial career, even if he’d avoided trouble for the past few years – has had a major impact on the series. Barrie’s knee injury took away Colorado’s best puck-moving defenceman and a big part of the offensive attack.

The Avs blueline brigade lacks somebody who does that job so well, which hurts a team that loves to attack with such a quick transition game.

 

randy.sportak@sunmedia.ca

On Twitter: @SunRandySportak


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