If the past three years are any indication, the Minnesota Wild’s season will come down to whether they can get by the resident bullies of the NHL’s Central Division.
The offensively challenged Colorado Avalanche are more concerned with getting pucks by opposing goaltenders.
These division rivals kick off the 2015-16 season Thursday night in Denver.
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Minnesota has improved its record each of the last three years and reached three straight postseasons for the first time in franchise history. However, the Wild were also eliminated by eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago for a third straight year, this time in four games in the Western Conference semifinals.
The Wild had finished a league-best 28-9-3 over their final 40 regular-season games and knocked out division champion St. Louis in the first round.
"Last year was especially disappointing, because we certainly felt like we had a team to do it," goalie Devan Dubnyk said. "It’s no secret: They’ve (Chicago) won three Stanley Cups. They know how to play, and they know how to play once it’s playoff time. Eventually, we’re going to have to get through them."
Dubnyk was integral to Minnesota’s hot finish, earning himself a six-year, $26 million deal after posting a 1.78 goals-against average in 39 games following his trade from Arizona. The Wild can’t count on Dubnyk to repeat his .936 save percentage with the club last season given his .914 career mark, however, and likely need more consistent scoring to compensate.
Their 2.6 goals per game during an 18-19-5 start tied for 19th, but they averaged 2.9 over the final 40 games. Thomas Vanek’s 21 goals in his first year with Minnesota were a career-low for a non-lockout season after he had averaged 32.1 in his previous eight full campaigns. His shot total of 171 was also a career low for a non-shortened season.
"Without question, there are times where Thomas has to shoot the puck more," coach Mike Yeo said. "He usually has that skill to create, but sometimes we have to create off the shot as well."
Jason Zucker’s continued emergence should be a boost. Zucker scored 21 goals a season ago despite being limited to 51 games due to injury.
Facing Dubnyk figures to be a tough test right off the bat for a Colorado team that was goal starved in the preseason, failing to find the back of the net in its final three exhibition contests.
"Exhibition or not, we have to change stuff," said the 38-year-old Jarome Iginla, who led the team with 29 goals last season. "We know we have to add that determination and grit to the skill that is here. This is a good wake-up call."
This comes a season after the Avalanche went 39-31-12 and tied for 22nd with 2.6 goals per game. Nathan MacKinnon seemed to take a step back with 38 points after tallying 63 during his Calder Trophy-winning campaign in 2013-14, though he missed 18 games due to a broken foot.
Colorado adds the likes of Blake Comeau and Carl Soderberg, who combined for 75 points for Pittsburgh and Boston, respectively, though it also dealt Ryan O’Reilly to Buffalo after he recorded 55 points.
"It’s not enough (scoring) and we know that," coach Patrick Roy said. "Is it a concern? Yes, it is. But I’m confident. I’d rather see it in preseason than the season. We all know we have to do better."
The Avalanche lost four of five meetings last year and were shut out in the first three.