Wild should give Blackhawks all they can handle

Minny celly

Score one, another one, for the stats nerds. All season and through the playoffs, the analytics dictated that the Colorado Avalanche simply couldn’t find any long-term success based on the way they played the game.

Well, the same way it caught up to the Toronto Maple Leafs, it finally came to roost for the Avalanche by the slightest of margins when they lost Game 7 of their first-round series to the Minnesota Wild 5-4 in overtime on Nino Niederreiter’s overtime goal.

Despite the razor-thin margin of victory, the Wild won this series as convincingly as the Avalanche lost it. Overall, they outshot the Avalanche by an average of 33.3-24.9 per game and out-Corsied, out-Fenwicked and outplayed them by a huge margin. In fact, if not for the bumbling goaltending of Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov earlier in the series, it likely would have ended sooner.

Which brings us to the Wild’s goaltending situation, which took another blow when starter Darcy Kuemper was knocked out of the game with what looked like another concussion. In came Bryzgalov, who played more than 13 minutes and faced only one shot – there’s your analytics again – and almost certainly now carries the Wild’s hopes against the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 2.

The Wild actually won the season series against the defending Stanley Cup champions by a 3-1-1 margin, but the only game of the five that Bryzgalov played was a 3-2 shootout loss to the Blackhawks April 3.

But this is a team that, despite finishing as the seventh seed in the Western Conference, is not to be taken lightly. They undoubtedly enter the series against Chicago as the decided underdog, but most people expected them to lose to the Avalanche in the first round. What we saw was a disciplined, determined team that continued to keep itself in games and the series after falling behind.

Much of that was due to two players who are in just their second season with the Wild. Zach Parise, in what should come as a surprise to no one, hit double digits in points in the series with three goals and seven assists despite being held off the scoresheet in Game 7. The other was Mikael Granlund, who was so good in the Olympics and showed why in this series he was on the Finnish Olympic team at such a young age. When he wasn’t making plays and being dangerous at one end of the ice, he was blocking shots and playing a defensive game well beyond his years.

But there were a lot of players tugging at the same end of the rope here and there were not too many passengers. Even the much-maligned Dany Heatley scored a total of five points in the series, including a goal, then an assist on the overtime winner. Captain Mikko Koivu came to life in Game 7 and Niederreiter scored three of his four points of the series in the pivotal game.

So now things are getting interesting in the Western Conference, aren’t they? Now that the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds are out of the picture, things are looking a lot more wide open at this stage than they did when the playoffs began.

The Wild will face another huge challenge against the Blackhawks. Judging by how the Blackhawks dominated in the last four games of their series against St. Louis, the Wild may look back at their series against the Avalanche as a walk in the park. But in a playoff season when so much that seemed so remote is so possible, why not believe in the Wild?