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Preview: Avalanche welcome Wild to Denver after Christmas break

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The Wild are back in action!

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Minnesota Wild Ben Ludeman-USA TODAY Sports

Think back to the offseason or early October. Did you see the Minnesota Wild sitting only two points out of a playoff spot around the New Year? As the Wild currently sit in the standings with 41 points through the first 38 games, it leaves many feeling a bit peculiar.

On one hand, the Wild have looked great for the better part of the past month and a half and look like a completely different team that started the season 1-6-0. But is this team a real contender?

Since November 14, the Wild lead the league with 28 points over that span. The team has also scored a league-high 84 goals since November 5. According to MoneyPuck.com, the team’s playoff chances are actually rather high for where they currently sit in the standings. Minnesota has a 64.1% odds of making the playoffs, 32.9% chance of making the second round, 17.7% odds of making the Western Conference Finals and a 9.6% chance to make the Cup Final.

For a team that looked dead in the water, that’s not too shabby.

Friday night, the Wild will be tasked with attempting to contain some of the league’s finest as they head to Colorado to square off against the Nathan MacKinnon-lead Avalanche with a national audience watching.

Colorado currently sits in second place in the Western Conference, trailing only the defending Cup Champ St. Louis Blues. The Avalanche are 6-3-1 in the past ten games, but have only won two of the past five games.

Colorado is coming off a 7-3 win over the Vegas Golden Knights. Role player Pierre-Edouard Bellemare led the way for Colorado, tallying two goals in the game against his former team. MacKinnon tallied two assists in the win. Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog played in his 600th career NHL game on Monday to become the 10th player in their franchise’s history and fifth in Avalanche history to reach the milestone.

The last time these two teams faced off, the Wild edged out a 3-2 victory in St. Paul on November 21. Jason Zucker’s goal in the third was enough to overcome a dominant performance from rookie defenseman Cale Makar, who scored both Avalanche goals in the Wild win. Unfortunately, the Wild will obviously not have Zucker in the lineup in this tilt.

Burning Questions

1. Will Luke Kunin continue his hot play of late?

Luke Kunin has not been given a lot of love this season. He seems to fly under the radar as he’s been bouncing all over the lineup, being placed anywhere and everywhere as one of the select few right-shot forwards on the team. Quietly, Kunin has already scored a career high in goals (9) and is only three points shy of setting a career high in points. It should come as no surprise, though, as this season is his first full season with the big club. For a 22-year-old, Kunin plays with a mature demeanor, shown by his work ethic on and off the puck.

Kunin is coming off of a two-point night on Monday, scoring a goal and adding an assist. The game prior, he got in a fight. The game before that, he scored a goal. Three straight games with impact. Can he continue to make an impact for the Wild against the Avalanche?

2. Cale Makar is slated for return tonight — can the Wild keep the rookie off the scoresheet?

The rookie standout, who is tied for second on the Avalanche in scoring with 28 points (eight goals, 20 assists) has been out for the past eight games with an upper-body injury suffered on December 7 at the Boston Bruins.

The last time Minnesota played Makar and the Avalanche, the 21-year-old was without a doubt the best player on the ice for either squad. Makar put up two second period goals — one on the power-play and one at even strength. If the Wild want to go into Pepsi Center and come out with a win, they’ll have to limit the youngster in his return to the lineup.

3. How will the man between the pipes do?

Whether it will be Devan Dubnyk or Alex Stalock between the pipes, the Wild will need some good goaltending if they want to continue their recent success of late. The start will likely go to Dubnyk, as he looked fantastic in Monday’s tilt against the Calgary Flames. In two starts since his return, he has two victories. Will the trend continue? And if Stalock gets the start, will he keep up the solid play?