Wild-Avalanche Rivalry Reaching New Heights

Colorado Avalanche v Minnesota Wild - Game Four

In sports everyone loves a good rivalry, and the National Hockey League is no exception.

From Bruins-Canadiens to Red Wings-Avalanche, the NHL has a rich history of intense rivalries between teams and fan bases that love nothing more than to hate one another.

Well, the league’s next rivalry might be brewing out in the Western Conference’s Central Division between the Minnesota Wild and the Colorado Avalanche, two teams that are starting to show some real mutual animosity.

The Wild and Avalanche do have some history, with both playing in the Western Conference’s Northwest Division from Minnesota’s debut season in 2000 before both were moved to the Central Division as a part of the NHL’s realignment prior to the 2013-14 season. More notably, these two teams have squared off in the playoffs on several occasions. In fact, Minnesota has faced Colorado in three of its five postseason appearances.

The first playoff meeting between the two clubs came in 2003 in the conference quarterfinals, where the sixth-seeded Wild – who were in just their third year of existence – took on the third-seeded Avalanche. Colorado jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the series, but the Wild rallied to win the next three games, capped off by a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 7. As it turned out, Andrew Brunette’s series-clinching goal ended the playing career of Hall of Fame goaltender and current Colorado head coach Patrick Roy, who announced his retirement a little over a month later.

The roles would be reversed five years later in the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs, when third-seeded Minnesota – who had finished atop the division standings – and the sixth-seeded Avalanche once again met in the conference quarterfinals. The Wild won two out of the first three games, each of which ended with 3-2 scores in overtime, but Colorado would rebound to win the next three contests to take the series in six.

Finally, the franchises tangled for a third time in the conference quarterfinals of last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, a series that really is the root for the current bad blood between these two teams. The Avalanche were one of the biggest surprises of the NHL’s regular season, capturing the Central Division crown in Roy’s first year at the helm after finishing dead last in the Western Conference standings during the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season. Meanwhile, Minnesota rebounded from a rough stretch in December to capture the West’s top wild card spot.

The series between the Wild and Avs was both dramatic and intense, with the home team emerging victorious in each of the first six games, three of which went to overtime. It was also in this series that Roy’s strategy of pulling the goalie earlier than usual with his team trailing late in the third period became more widely recognized. In fact, numerous coaches around the league have since adopted the strategy.

Roy pulled Colorado goaltender Semyon Varlamov early for an extra attacker in both Games 1 and 5, helping the Avalanche tally the equalizer and ultimately win in overtime on both occasions. Facing a 3-2 series deficit, the Wild answered with a Game 6 victory at the Xcel Energy Center behind two goals from Zach Parise, including the game winner to break a 2-2 tie with 6:29 remaining in the third period.

This forced a decisive Game 7 back in Denver at the Pepsi Center, where Minnesota rallied from one-goal deficits four different times before Nino Niederreiter scored just over five minutes into overtime to give the Wild their first postseason series victory since 2003.

While an intense, hard-fought series of this magnitude certainly can help ignite a rivalry, the real trigger came in Game 3, when Minnesota forward Matt Cooke ended Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie’s season with a brutal knee-on-knee collision.

Cooke, who had spent the past three years trying to rehabilitate his image as a notoriously dirty player, was only suspended seven games for the incident, which caught the ire of Colorado players, coaches and fans alike.

Naturally, fans of both teams and casual observers alike were interested in seeing how this dynamic would carry over when they went head-to-head in the first two games of the regular season. The answer: rough, physical play, but rather lopsided results.

The Wild dominated in both of those games and the two meetings since, outscoring the Avalanche 12-1 and winning all four contests. However, that doesn’t mean the games have been short on excitement, thanks to the chippy play that has been a recurring theme during each meeting.

The second game of the year, played in Denver, featured an elbow by Avs defenseman Erik Johnson on Minnesota forward Erik Haula that resulted in a five-minute major and a game misconduct being issued to Johnson. Later, with just four seconds remaining in the third period, Roy tried to send out his goons but was stopped by the refs.

But it was the latest meeting between these two teams where the bitterness was on full display and the frustration reached a boiling point. An already fierce affair almost turned into a full-blown melee in the closing seconds of the game when Roy, ever the pacifist, sent out forward Cody McLeod, who promptly drilled Mikael Granlund with a cheap shot as soon as the puck was dropped.

Charlie Coyle then came to the aid of his teammate and briefly fought McLeod while the two benches got into a shouting match. However, Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog decided to take it one step further, throwing a punch at Wild counterpart Mikko Koivu.

Minnesota head coach Mike Yeo called McLeod’s antics “garbage” after the game and felt that the league should act, but McLeod didn’t end up receiving as severe a punishment as he could (and probably should) have. Because they determined that Coyle had initiated the fight, the refs only gave McLeod an unsportsmanlike penalty rather than an instigator, saving both he and Roy from an automatic fine and one-game suspension. Still, McLeod and Landeskog would later receive lesser fines from the league for their actions. The chaos wasn’t just contained to the ice, as a brawl even broke out in the stands between fans of the two teams.

Now, the Wild and Avalanche prepare to go toe-to-toe one final time on Sunday in their last regular-season meeting, and it’s hard to imagine that the tension has died down very much.

Earlier this week, Roy defended McLeod in a not-so-subtle response to Yeo’s postgame comments.

“To me, garbage is what Cooke did to Barrie, not what McLeod did at the end of the game,” Roy said.

Of course, with the Avalanche struggling mightily this season and the Wild decimating them in all four meetings up to this point, this rivalry hasn’t lived up to it’s full potential yet. That being said, both teams have ample young talent and figure to be regular contenders in the division for years to come.

For now, all eyes will be on the Xcel Energy Center this Sunday, when Minnesota and Colorado write the next chapter in one of the NHL’s fiercest new rivalries.



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