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Reality check: Wild find solid start means little as they get run over by high-flying Avalanche

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Minnesota Wild
Jan 30, 2021; Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA; Colorado Avalanche players celebrate after center Tyson Jost (17) scores a goal during the first period at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

After opening the season by winning five of eight games against a trio of California cream puffs, the Minnesota Wild got their first real test on Saturday night when they played the first of four in a row against Colorado. It wasn’t pretty. The Avalanche, a favorite to win the Stanley Cup in this pandemic-altered season, skated circles around the Wild (literally) in a 5-1 victory that wasn’t that close.

The Avalanche are filled with speed and star power and, unlike the Kings, Ducks and Sharks, provided continual reminders to the Wild of just how difficult life can be against a top foe when your roster doesn’t have a No. 1 or 2 center and lacks the ability to play at the breakneck pace that Colorado has perfected. Center Nathan MacKinnon is the Avs’ top player and one of the best in the NHL. The Wild’s best player is rookie winger Kirill Kaprizov, who was playing in only his ninth NHL game on Saturday.

The only fortunate thing for the Wild was that fans weren’t allowed into Xcel Energy Center. The Wild would have heard plenty of negative and deserved feedback as their feeble power play dropped to 2-for-36 on the season. The biggest surprise of the night was the score was actually tied in the first period after Wild defenseman Matt Dumba answered Logan O’Connor’s goal to make it 1-1.

It was all downhill from there.

The Wild entered the game without winger Kevin Fiala, the team’s leading scorer last season, after he was suspended for three games on Friday because of a boarding penalty against the Kings. Winger Marcus Johansson did not play in the third period and Dumba appeared to suffer a leg injury when he locked skates with teammate Jordan Greenway in the third period. Dumba was helped to the locker room and did not return. Coach Dean Evason did not provide an injury update on either player but one has to assume they both could be out Sunday night against the Avalanche.

The bad news didn’t only come on the ice. During the second intermission, with the Wild trailing 3-1, the team tweeted that first-round center Marco Rossi had returned returned home to Austria to be with his family and was dealing with complications from COVID-19. There is no timetable for when Rossi might be back, but there would appear to be a chance he won’t play this season. Rossi, the ninth overall pick in the NHL draft in October, was cleared to return from COVID-19 in November and played for Austria in the World Junior Championships so he’s now dealing with some type of lingering issue from the virus.

There had been a hope that Rossi would not only make the Wild roster out of training camp but also grab one of the top center spots. Instead, the Wild has been using Nick Bjugstad, Nick Bonino and Joel Eriksson Ek as their top three centers. Eriksson Ek has been the Wild’s best center and until the past two games had been used exclusively with Marcus Foligno and Greenway on the wings. Evason has played Eriksson Ek with Kaprizov at times in the past two games. It helped against Los Angeles, but the Wild’s centers are nothing more than speed bumps for the Avalanche to skate over.

General manager Bill Guerin now has a decision to make. The Wild should have an opportunity to grab a playoff spot in the West Division. The top four teams in each division will go to the postseason and the Wild have the fortune of being in a group that includes the Kings, Ducks, Coyotes and Sharks. Colorado, Vegas and St. Louis are the top three teams but the Wild should be in position to get the fourth spot.

But having any chance against one of those top three teams in the first round would mean bringing in at least one center who belongs in a top two role. Those guys aren’t easy to find and they come at a big price. Guerin likely would have loved to have had a shot at disgruntled Blue Jackets center Pierre-Luc Dubois, but he was sent to Winnipeg in a blockbuster that brought back sniper Patrik Laine. The Wild doesn’t have that type of player to offer, and their potential greatest trade asset, Dumba, might be sidelined for an extended period of time.

There also is a chance that Guerin and his colleagues have looked at the top teams in the division — one in which the Wild only will be in for a season — and decided the timing isn’t right to make a major move. After what Guerin witnessed Saturday night, no one can blame him if he decides anything he sees from his team against the West Division bottom feeders means little.

Meanwhile, the Wild prepare for a rematch with the Avalanche on Sunday in St. Paul. At least they are guaranteed of not being booed.