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Avalanche return to playoffs for 1st time since 2010, focus on the Wild

DENVER - As the season went along and the Colorado Avalanche kept winning and winning, they broadened their ambitions: From simply making the playoffs to accumulating 100 points to capturing a division title.

This youthful squad pretty much accomplished everything they set their minds to, even if "nobody expected to see us where we are," first-year coach Patrick Roy said.

A turnaround such as this was understandably a little hard to picture, considering a year ago Colorado finished last in the Western Conference.

The Avalanche not only matched a franchise record for wins (52), but secured the Central Division as they return to the post-season for the first time in four years. They host the Minnesota Wild in the opener of a best-of-seven series Thursday night.

"From the get-go, our guys came to camp and were ready," Roy said. "They wanted to be different, they wanted to see a change, and they play hard.

"They were working hard, they were focused and they wanted to have a good year."

Roy will be no doubt be a strong candidate for coach of the year for the job he's done—taking a 16-win team during a lockout-shortened season to 52 victories.

But he's not the only one possibly in line for some prestigious awards: Nathan MacKinnon appears to be a virtual lock for rookie of the year and Semyon Varlamov should be among the favourites for the Vezina Trophy, which is given to the league's best goaltender. Varlamov finished with a franchise-record 41 wins, surpassing Roy's total (40) back when the Hall of Famer led the team to the 2000-01 Stanley Cup title.

"Obviously, our goaltending's been the backbone of our team," forward Paul Stastny said. "As the season went on, we kept getting better."

For weeks, the Avalanche appeared on a collision course with the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs.

Then, the St. Louis Blues began to stumble, opening the door for the Avalanche to clinch their first divisional title since Roy was in net nearly a decade ago.

So now the Avalanche face Minnesota, a team they were 4-0-1 against in the regular season.

Still, the Wild have them worried.

"It's going to be tough," Stastny said. "They're playing well right now."

Especially with Ilya Bryzgalov giving the team some stability in goal. The Wild acquired the veteran in early March from the Edmonton Oilers and Bryzgalov went 7-1-3 down the stretch. His only clunker was in the season-finale Sunday, when Bryzgalov allowed five goals in a 7-3 loss to Nashville.

It hasn't shaken coach Mike Yeo's faith in his goalie, though.

"Bryz has done a fantastic job since he's been here and his teammates have done a fantastic job in front of him to give him that opportunity and that's that mentality that we have to have," Yeo said.

He knows just how dynamic the Avalanche are on offence, how much speed they possess on the ice.

"This is a good team, a really good team," Yeo said. "This is a team that we have to have a lot of respect for. Skill level. Very dynamic. Very creative."

The Avalanche are also banged up. They will be without Matt Duchene, the team's leading scorer, for the start of this series due to a knee injury. They're already missing Alex Tanguay (hip, knee) and sharp-shooting defenceman Tyson Barrie's status remains unknown after he suffered an upper-body injury during the weekend.

"We've never used injuries as an excuse," Stastny said. "We've had different lines step up all year."

___

AP Sports Writers Greg Beacham in Anaheim, Calif., and Dave Campbell in St. Paul, Minn., contributed to this report.

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