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Avalanche-Wild Preview

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Now that the 113-day NHL lockout is over, the Minnesota Wild can finally showcase their two biggest offseason acquisitions.

Whether Zach Parise and Ryan Suter can help the Wild match the preseason Stanley Cup hype - or just lead the club to the playoffs for the first time in five seasons - remains to be seen.

The two All-Stars will make their Wild debuts in Saturday night's season opener at home, where they'll meet a Colorado Avalanche team that's looking to end its own postseason drought in 2012-13.

Minnesota led the league with a 20-7-3 record Dec. 10, 2011, but went on to finish 12th in the Western Conference at 35-36-11.

The Wild haven't been to the playoffs since 2007-08 and have only won two postseason series in their 12-year history, but there is plenty of excitement surrounding the club as it gets set to kick off this abbreviated 48-game season.

Minnesota's disheartening final record was due in part to a severe lack of offense. Minus their 11 shootout tallies, the Wild's 166 goals were the fewest in the NHL in a decade.

Hopes of that changing are high following the surprising free-agent splash that landed Parise and Suter, who both inked 13-year, $98 million deals July 4.

Parise, a Twin Cities native, had 31 goals and 38 assists as New Jersey's captain last season and is expected to skate on a line with Dany Heatley and captain Mikko Koivu. Heatley led the Wild with 24 goals and 53 points in 2011-12.

Suter, who spent his first seven seasons with Nashville, will anchor an unproven group of defenseman that includes Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner, 18-year-old first-round pick Mathew Dumba and Suter's former college teammate Tom Gilbert, who is expected to play Saturday despite a groin injury.

Suter's speed and puck-moving ability should further enhance the offense, as he had a career-high 46 points last season and tied for fourth in the league with 22 power-play assists. Minnesota's 15.1 percent success rate with the man advantage was near the bottom of the league.

"This team never needed saviors or anything. They already had great players,'' said Parise, whose father J.P. played for the Minnesota North Stars. "Ryan and I, we think we can make a team better, and that's all we want to do. We want to be pieces to a team we feel is going to be very good, so that's all we're looking at.''

The Avs (41-35-6) will be trying to make it back to the postseason for the first time since 2009-10. They dropped out of the playoff picture with six losses in their final seven games and finished seven points out of the eighth spot.

"There's no reason we can't be a playoff team," defenseman Shane O'Brien said. "Anything less will be a huge failure.''

The Avs have failed to sign last season's leading scorer Ryan O'Reilly, who inked a two-year deal with KHL team Metallurg Magnitogorsk in December. It's uncertain when, or if, the 21-year-old center will return to coach Joe Sacco's lineup.

"We can't worry about who's not here and just who is,'' said fourth-year center Matt Duchene, who signed a two-year contract after playing in just 58 games last season due to knee and ankle injuries. "We're all links in the chain and have to be strong so we can win."

Duchene will likely skate on a line with P.A. Parenteau, who had career highs of 49 assists and 67 points for the New York Islanders last season, and the Avs' new captain, Gabriel Landeskog.

The 20-year-old Swede, the Calder Trophy winner as top rookie, became the youngest captain in league history in September when he took over the "C" from Milan Hejduk, who returns for a 14th season.

"I don't know if I've ever had a captain that young. I guess no one has,'' said Avs defenseman Erik Johnson, who re-signed for four years in the offseason. "But it doesn't change anything. Your captain is usually your best player. He doesn't have to be Mr. Vocal in the locker room - we have a lot of other guys for that.

"So (Landeskog) just has to do what he's been doing - being a good hockey player and one of our hardest workers and best players. When he does that, leadership takes care of itself.''

Veteran goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere returns for the Avs after signing a one-year extension in August, and he gives Sacco a capable backup behind likely Saturday starter Semyon Varlamov.

Varlamov appeared in 32 games last season and posted a 2.27 GAA - the lowest for a Colorado goaltender since David Aebischer had a 2.09 in 2003-04.

Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, who signed a three-year, $5.7 million deal during the summer, are back in net for Minnesota, but it's uncertain if Harding's playing time will be impacted this season after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last year.

Minnesota and Colorado split six games last season, with the Avs winning the last two matchups in St. Paul.

Tagged: Avalanche, Wild, Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Ryan O'Reilly

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