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Updated: April 14th, 2014 7:43pm
Zulgad: Wild won't be favored against Avs but expectations exist this time

Zulgad: Wild won't be favored against Avs but expectations exist this time

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The Minnesota Wild will be making their fifth appearance in the NHL playoffs starting Thursday when they open a first-round series against the Avalanche in Colorado.

The Wild's past three trips to the postseason have been forgettable.

Since surprising everyone in 2003 by advancing to the Western Conference finals with seven-game victories over the Avalanche and Canucks, the Wild have lost in the first round to Anaheim (2007), Colorado (2008) and Chicago (2013).

The most disappointing of those ousters came in 2008, when the Wild lost in six games to the Avs after winning the only division title in franchise history.

Last season, there were few expectations the Wild would have a chance of beating a Blackhawks team that went on to win the Stanley Cup. The Hawks were superior on nearly every level.

Minnesota and Josh Harding, a surprise starter in goal after Niklas Backstrom was injured in warm-ups before Game 1, were able to extend Chicago into overtime in the opener before losing, 2-1. The Wild beat Chicago, 3-2, in overtime of Game 3 but that was their only victory of the series.

One thing that stood out as a thread in the series was the remarkable lack of intensity, a result of the fact that the Wild were about as big of a threat to Chicago as the Washington Generals are to the Harlem Globetrotters.

That isn't the case this time.

But here's the key question for the Wild this spring: What exactly are the expectations for them in these playoffs?

Colorado is a team that went from second worst in the NHL in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season to finishing second in the Western Conference with 112 points under first-year coach Patrick Roy.

The Wild, who had 98 points and are the top wild card team from the West, will be a deserved underdog entering this series.

That doesn't mean Mike Yeo's team should be given the pass of being an easy one-and-out.

Not in a league where it's commonplace for a low seed to upset a high one.

The Avs are good, but they aren't the 2013 Blackhawks. Colorado is weakened by the fact it will begin this series without leading scorer Matt Duchene, who suffered a knee injury in late March.

The Wild also look like a better team than they were last April, when they did not get winger Jason Pominville back until the final two playoff games after he suffered a concussion late in the regular season.

Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher added veteran winger Matt Moulson at the trade deadline this season, and it sounds as if center Mikael Granlund might be set to return from a concussion for this series. Granlund, pretty much a non-factor for the Wild last season, is their No. 2 center when healthy.

Granlund coming back would enable the Wild to utilize impressive rookie Erik Haula on the third or fourth line, creating more depth.

Then there is the fact the Wild roster contains winger Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who are in the second season of matching 13-year, $98 million contracts.

Those are Yankee-type deals and any team with two players being compensated in this manner should have much higher expectations than simply making the playoffs.

The biggest unknown for the Wild will be in goal.

Ilya Bryzgalov, acquired at the trade deadline because the Wild were desperate for depth between the pipes, has gone 7-1-3 with a 2.00 goals-against average and .916 save percentage since his arrival. That loss came in a meaningless game against Nashville on Sunday in which the Wild's only mission was to remain healthy.

The assumption when Bryzgalov joined the Wild was that he would be Darcy Kuemper's backup. But an injury to Kuemper, coupled with Bryzgalov's performance, makes it appear he will be the guy Minnesota attempts to ride in the playoffs.

Goaltending might be the most critical thing when it comes to success in the postseason, so a guy who ultimately will have replaced Backstrom, Harding and Kuemper is going to have a big say on just how difficult the Wild can make life on the Avalanche.

Bryzgalov is 17-19 in 38 career postseason games, including 36 starts, and has a 2.81 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.

He was the backup to Jean-Sebastien Giguere during Anaheim's run to the Stanley Cup in 2007, but in three playoffs since then (two with Phoenix and one with Philadephia), he has an 8-14 record.

Yeo will be hoping that Bryzgalov can reverse that trend. Yeo is coaching in the final season of his contract and it remains unclear what, if anything, his team must do in the playoffs for Fletcher and owner Craig Leipold to reward him with a new deal.

Leipold has proven to be a man of great patience as an NHL owner - he never made a coaching change during nine-plus seasons overseeing the Nashville Predators - but if the Wild bows out in four or five games, you have to wonder if Leipold would consider switching things up behind the bench.

It wouldn't be unfair if he did. Especially if the Wild doesn't pass the eye test, meaning that at a minimum, if I'm Leipold, I want to see maximum effort put into every game. At least make it feel like playoff hockey, even if you lose.

The Wild are considered to be a year away - and a few key roster additions- from being a team that can make a deep playoff run. That's fine, if that's what you want to think.

Nonetheless, that shouldn't mean that a lack of playoff success this spring should be accepted as a foregone conclusion.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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