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Monday, April 7

Updated: April 7, 8:07 PM ET

Minnesota gets red-hot Avs to open playoffs

Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The NHL playoffs, something the Minnesota Wild barely acknowledged throughout their first three seasons, are here.

And they're in them.

''It's going to be a fun challenge for everybody in our room,'' said center Wes Walz. ''Obviously the mountain is very high to climb, but we'll be up for the challenge. You never know what can happen in the playoffs.''

Emphasis on challenge.

Thanks to a late swoon by Vancouver and a hard charge by Colorado, the Wild play the third-seeded Avalanche in the first round. Game 1 is Thursday night in Denver.

That means Minnesota must take on a team that won 25 of its final 37 regular-season games. That has nine consecutive division titles, dating back to the franchise's days in Quebec. That boasts a line of Alex Tanguay, Milan Hejduk (league-high 50 goals), Peter Forsberg (league-high 106 points) and another one centered by Joe Sakic. That has defensemen like Adam Foote and Rob Blake.

Plus a guy in goal -- Patrick Roy -- who's won four Stanley Cups.

''Obviously we're going to be the underdog in this series,'' Walz said. ''We're not supposed to win. Anytime you go into a series as the underdog, you play a little bit more loose.''

That seems to be the theme this week.

''Go have fun,'' said center Jim Dowd. ''That's all we want to do. Guys are excited, and there's a good buzz around here. It's been a good ride. We just want to keep it going.''

But it's not as though the postseason will be like an exhibition game in Grand Forks, N.D.

''I think that in the playoffs, pressure is there,'' coach Jacques Lemaire said. ''It's how every individual will deal with it. That's how it works. If you can't deal with it, you're done.''

After losing to the Wild on Sunday, Columbus rookie Rick Nash sized up Minnesota's chance for success quite well.

''They out-work teams, even though the other team may have more talent,'' Nash said. ''When it comes down to the playoffs, hard work beats talent.''

Though the Wild can't come close to matching Roy's postseason pedigree, they've got a couple good goaltenders themselves.

The tandem of Dwayne Roloson (.927) and Manny Fernandez (.924) each finished with higher save percentage than Roy (.920) this year and were strong down the stretch.

Lemaire said earlier in the season that it might be better to go with one of them for the entire series, but he offered no hints after practice Monday on who that would be.

Or if he will actually choose one instead of sticking with the rotation.

What will be the deciding factors? How they perform in practice? Who played better against the Avalanche during the season?

''We'll look at all of that,'' Lemaire said with a sly smile.

Minnesota's top defender, Brad Bombardir, practiced Monday but won't be able to play in Game 1 because of a back injury that's kept him out since Feb. 26. His agility isn't quite there yet. ''I want to get out there,'' he said, ''but if you can't help the team, you have to be honest with yourself.'' ... Andrei Zyuzin's light groin pull Sunday suddenly made the defense a little thin, but Zyuzin -- though he didn't practice Monday -- will be back for practice Tuesday, Lemaire said. ... Like a college football team, the Wild will stay in a hotel the night before Games 3 and 4 in St. Paul. Lemaire wants to cut down the distractions, and that includes guests in the dressing room. Who will control that? ''Me,'' he said, laughing. ''I've got my bodyguard. He's wearing No. 12.'' That's Matt Johnson, who set a franchise record with 201 penalty minutes this year.

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