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WILD (43-27-12) at AVALANCHE (52-22-8)
TV: Altitude, Fox Sports North, RDS, TSN, CNBC
Last 10: Minnesota 6-3-1; Colorado 7-1-2
Season series: The Avalanche won four of the five games against the Wild this season with Minnesota's win coming in a 2-1 shootout victory on Dec. 14.
Big story: The Wild and Avalanche will play in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third time (2003, 2008), leading to an obvious storyline in the series' early going: Can the wild-card team, in this case Minnesota, continue the trend in a series with these two squads? In 2003, the Northwest Division-champion Avalanche was ousted by the lower-seeded Wild. In 2008, the Northwest Division-champion Wild was eliminated by the lower-seeded Avalanche.
Wild: Minnesota forwards Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu have been reunited and are producing on the Wild's top line, and Mikael Granlund is likely to return from an upper-body injury in time to give Minnesota a second scoring line it didn't have last year in a five-game loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Granlund is third on the Wild in assists (33) despite missing 19 games and was named an All-Star at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where the 22-year old center played some of his best hockey. Playing between a pair of veteran forwards, Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville, Granlund has the ability to make the Wild's second line dangerous.
"He's been in and out [with a different injury] a little earlier on and missed about a month, and he came back and his timing was pretty good right away," Pominville said. "I think it'll be no different this time. His timing should be fine."
Avalanche: Colorado coach Patrick Roy returns to the playoffs for the first time since the Wild ended his playing career in 2003 with an overtime goal by Andrew Brunette in Game 7. This time, Roy is behind the bench and has orchestrated an amazing one-year turnaround. Last season, the Avalanche finished with the fewest points in the Western Conference and had the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft. One year later, with many of the same roster pieces in place, the Avalanche won the Central Division.
Perhaps the biggest reason for that turnaround has been goaltender Semyon Varlamov. His 41 wins established a single-season Avalanche record, besting by one the record set by Roy in 2000-01. Colorado won its second Stanley Cup that season.
"There were a lot of question marks, and I think he responded to all the question marks," Roy said. "He worked so hard. He was really determined to turn things around and play with consistency, and that's what he's been doing. He was very determined to make a turn here, and he did. I appreciate what he's been doing since the start of the year. He's been a difference maker."
Who's hot: Pominville had three-point games in two of the Wild's three to end the season, including a goal and two assists Sunday against the Nashville Predators. The goal gave him 30, making him the third player in Wild history to reach that number. He had 30 assists for his sixth career 60-point season. … Avalanche forward Ryan O'Reilly has at least a point in five of his past seven games, leads the team with 28 goals, and has three goals and an assist in five games against Minnesota.
Injury report: Wild forward Kyle Brodziak (lower body) missed the regular-season finale but is likely to play in Game 1. A decision on goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body) will be made following the morning skate. Forward Dany Heatley (lower body) should be available, but will likely be scratched. Forward Jason Zucker (quad), defenseman Keith Ballard (groin) and goaltenders Josh Harding (illness) and Niklas Backstrom (abdominal) are out. … Avalanche forward Cody McLeod (ankle) is expected to play Thursday, as are defensemen Jan Hejda (upper body) and Tyson Barrie (upper body). Forward John Mitchell (head) is likely out for Game 1, and forward Matt Duchene (knee) is expected to miss the series. If he doesn't play Thursday, Mitchell is likely to be back at some point, potentially as soon as Game 3 on Monday in St. Paul.