(SportsNetwork.com) - The Colorado Avalanche were the biggest surprise of the NHL's regular season. The Central Division champions now hope to carry their shocking success into the playoffs, as the Avalanche welcome the Minnesota Wild to Pepsi Center for Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.
Colorado not only made the playoffs for the first time since 2010, the club also earned its first division title since 2002-03. Winning the Central was no small feat, as the Avs finished ahead of an excellent St. Louis Blues team and also the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
The Avs figured to be a team on the upswing after landing talented center Nathan MacKinnon with the top overall pick of the 2013 draft and hiring former goaltender great Patrick Roy as their head coach. But an outstanding season by netminder Semyon Varlamov expedited the process and his Vezina Trophy-worthy season -- as well as a late collapse by the Blues -- helped the Avs take the division, setting up this first-round matchup against the Wild, who claimed the first of the West's two wild card spots.
Varlamov led the NHL with 41 victories, breaking Roy's single-season franchise mark set in 2000-01. He also surpassed his head coach for the most home victories by an Avalanche goaltender in a season with 24.
All will be for naught though if Varlamov's postseason debut with Colorado goes sour. He has not played a playoff game since 2010 with the Washington Capitals and in 19 total games of postseason experience, the Russian is 10-9 with a 2.49 goals against average and .915 save percentage.
There may be some additional pressure on Varlamov and the defense as forward Matt Duchene may miss the entire series with a bruised knee suffered on March 29. Duchene still led the Avs with 47 assists and 70 points, but Colorado did manage to go 5-1-2 down the stretch without him.
The Avalanche snapped a three-year playoff drought by matching a franchise record with 52 victories and setting another mark with 26 road wins. Their 112 points were good for second-most in the club's single-season history.
Minnesota is in the playoffs for the second straight season, making the club 2-for-2 in postseason appearances since it broke the bank to sign both forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter in the summer of 2012.
The Wild snapped a four-year postseason drought by earning the eighth seed a season ago, only to fall in five games to the Chicago Blackhawks. This season, Minnesota racked up impressive totals of 43 wins and 98 points -- a 17-point improvement from the full 2011-12 campaign.
The usual suspects came through as Jason Pominville, Parise, Mikko Koivu and Suter were Minnesota's top four scorers.
The Wild had four goaltenders make at least 10 starts this season, but Ilya Bryzgalov is the No. 1 option heading into the playoffs. Bryzgalov was acquired from Edmonton at the trade deadline and the Russian veteran went 7-1-3 with a 2.12 goals against average and .911 save percentage in 12 games with Minnesota.
Bryzgalov has appeared in 38 postseason games, though his numbers aren't great. He is 17-19 with a 2.81 GAA and .908 save percentage.
The Avalanche got a point in all five of their meetings with the Wild this season, going 4-0-1.
Varlamov was 3-0-1 with a 2.16 GAA in four games, while Bryzgalov did not face the Avalanche since joining the Wild. The Russian has, however, won all four of his previous playoff games against them, posting a 0.94 GAA and two shutouts while with the Anaheim Ducks back in 2006.
This is the third all-time playoff meeting between the clubs. The Wild won a 2003 conference quarterfinals matchup in seven games, while the Avalanche knocked off Minnesota in six games during the same round in 2008.
Colorado also will host Game 2 of this best-of-seven series on Saturday. The Avs were 26-11-4 on home ice in 2013-14, while Minnesota was just 17-17-7 on the road.