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Stanley Cup playoffs preview: Avalanche begin their high-tempo title march

·11-min read

Avalanche (1) vs. Blues (4)

This year's version of the Colorado Avalanche satisfy all audiences, as they pass the eye test with flying colors, while emerging as the analytics darling of the NHL. 

Colorado led all teams in Corsi for percentage, unblocked shot attempts, expected goals for percentage and high-danger chances-for percentage at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick. They led the NHL with 197 goals and were also arguably the best team in the league at suppressing shots, too. It would be a disservice to pretend the Avalanche only appeal to the mathematically-inclined, as they play at a hyper-speed tempo, can seemingly score on every shift, get outstanding contributions from their defensive corps and are now hell-bent on becoming the first Presidents' Trophy winner to lift the Cup since the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks. 

Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog form the best line in hockey, while Devon Toews and Cale Makar should both earn down-ballot Norris Trophy votes. The Avalanche are brimming with talent as 23-year-old blueliner Samuel Girard has developed into a superstar, while Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Brandon Saad and Tyson Jost all provided the secondary offense every team aspires to have. They're going to be a nightmare to stop and the Avalanche come at you with four lines with top-notch pace, fluidity, creativity and scoring ability, alongside three defensemen who are elite at joining the rush. Philipp Grubauer was also outstanding in net and will likely finish as one of the Vezina Trophy runner-ups, recording a .923 save percentage and 14.39 goals saved above average, the sixth-best mark in the league. 

Pick your poison, really. 

In many respects, the Avalanche will test the St. Louis Blues' well-established commitment to playing sound defensive hockey over everything. The cast and characters from the 2019 title are more or less the same, Alex Pietrangelo notwithstanding, but the Blues enter this series with a minus-1 goal differential, and it's only because they won the Cup two years ago that this series cannot be billed as David vs. Goliath. 

It's not all bad for the Blues. David Perron submitted arguably the best season of his stellar career, leading the Blues with 58 points in 56 games, while Ryan O'Reilly continues to be one of the NHL's best two-way forwards and faceoff specialists, winning draws at a nearly 59 percent rate. It's their depth contributions that have taken a major step back. Vladimir Tarasenko is no longer the perpetual 35-goal scorer he once was, with numerous shoulder surgeries taking a toll on his production, while Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz too often failed to meaningfully contribute offensively. 

Torey Krug was expected to fill the major void left by Pietrangelo's departure to the Golden Knights, and we're not suggesting he got the bag and dipped after posting two goals and 32 points in 51 games, but the Blues simply need more offensive invention from him. 

The Blues are going to have their hands full with Nathan MacKinnon. (Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Blues are going to have their hands full with Nathan MacKinnon. (Photo by Scott Rovak/NHLI via Getty Images)

What have you done for me lately?

The Avalanche rolled over their competition to end the season on a five-game winning streak. Colorado defeated Los Angeles by an aggregate score of 11-1 during its final two games, stole a 2-1 contest it had no business winning against Vegas on May 10, and look the part of the leading Cup contender. 

In a normal season, the Avalanche would've boasted seven all-star candidates but even their no-name guys are getting it done. J.T. Compher exploded for a hat trick against the Kings on May 12, Jost gamely filled in on the first line while MacKinnon rested during the season finale, and the team didn't miss a beat during Girard's two week injury-related absence this month. There's been little to suggest the Avalanche will be anything but at their best entering the playoffs. Colorado's unreal possession and shot-creation metrics are better than its season averages post-March 1, according to Natural Stat Trick. Godspeed, Craig Berube. 

St. Louis won its final three games of the regular season, showing a scoring touch that had been largely absent for most of the season. It really has been a slog for the Blues analytically, though. Since March 1, the Blues held a 46.59 Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5, the sixth-worst mark in the league, and second-worst among playoff teams. There's little to suggest the Blues are a counter-attacking machine either, finishing with the third-fewest high-danger chances post-March 1 as well, and the fewest among playoff teams.

The Avalanche will win if...

They continue to play their high-octane game, all four lines roll effectively as they have, and they don't undergo a goaltending crisis like last year where the likes of Michael Hutchinson were thrown between the pipes in high-leverage situations. 

The Blues will win if...

O'Reilly submits the best defensive performance of his career in neutralizing Colorado's top line, and if Jordan Binnington returns to his 2019 form. St. Louis will need some secondary scoring and Tarasenko will have to rediscover the scoring touch that made him a perennial 35-goal scorer prior to shoulder surgeries that he underwent after the 2018-19 season. And a few unforeseen playoff miracles, too. 

Series Hero

MacKinnon is the best player in this series, perhaps only rivalled by Makar, and his explosiveness, ability to get his shot off from anywhere, world-class speed and scoring touch makes him the No. 1 choice, among several options here. If Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews didn't have such brilliant seasons of their own, MacKinnon's season would've gained a much larger spotlight. Expect him to dominate, even with O'Reilly monitoring him like a hawk. 

The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung Hero)

St. Louis is in desperate need of someone other than Perron and O'Reilly to generate some scoring, and Robert Thomas may have to fill the void. Thomas, a first-round pick in 2017, has been a solid all-around contributor at every stage of his career, and he'll have to display the high-end skill he showed off in the Ontario Hockey League, if the Blues are to have a chance of pulling off a massive upset.

Prediction: Avalanche in five. 

Golden Knights (2) vs. Wild (3)

This very well may be the best matchup of the first round. 

Mark Stone is the NHL's best two-way forward, while the top line featuring himself, Max Pacioretty and Chandler Stephenson ranks among the league's best. Stone and Pacioretty are both known commodities, but Stephenson, who won the Stanley Cup with the Capitals in 2018, submitted the best year of his career with 14 goals and 35 points. It looks like the Golden Knights got away with larceny, having acquired Stephenson for a 2021 fifth-round pick last season. 

William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith effectively serve as Vegas's 2A line, with all three players capable of unlocking an extra gear offensively. This is perhaps anecdotal but every time I've watched Alex Tuch play, it seems like he's on the verge of stardom, as he boasts one of the best combinations of speed, size and the ability to make defenders panic while crashing the net. Tuch quietly serves as the lead component of a very strong third line, featuring trade deadline acquisition Mattias Janmark and Nicolas Roy, but he can be rotated onto the first line if Pacioretty misses time due to an undisclosed injury.

Vegas boasts a luxury few other teams could dream of, as Marc-Andre Fleury has been the NHL's second-best goaltender while Robin Lehner — who would start for at least 20 other teams— serves as his backup. Fleury posted a 1.98 GAA, a .928 save percentage, six shutouts and a 20.02 goals saved above average, the fourth-best total in the NHL. Playoff success is often dictated by goaltending, and the Golden Knights are in a better position than the rest of the competition. 

Pietrangelo joined Vegas in the offseason and lived up to the top-tier billing, while a reinvigorated Alec Martinez submitted arguably the best season of his career. Shea Theodore has cemented his place as one of the NHL's best overall defenders, while Brayden McNabb, Nicolas Hague (more on him below) and Zach Whitecloud round out a very solid top-six for the Golden Knights. 

If you haven't been paying attention to the Wild this year, we can't exactly blame you, but they are now one of the league's most electrifying teams and it all starts with rookie sensation Kirill Kaprizov. Kaprizov is the runaway favourite to win the Calder Trophy, posting 27 goals and 51 points in 55 games. The raw statistical output isn't the best way to appreciate Kaprizov. He is a walking highlight reel with more jaw-dropping moments this season than any player not named McDavid or Matthews. If you want to see a further breakdown, we strongly recommend Dylan Fremlin of Hockey Wilderness' analysis of Kaprizov this season

They're not just a one-hit wonder. Joel Eriksson Ek is one of the NHL's best two-way players, forming a solid second line alongside Marcus Foligno and Jordan Greenway, while the third line of Nick Bonino, Kevin Fiala and Marcus Johansson should be up to the task of shutting down Vegas's top line. 

There are no real stars on Minnesota's back end, but Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba form a solid top-four pairing that will likely see increased minutes against a Golden Knights team that is confident rolling four lines. 

The series may be won through a special teams disparity as Vegas's second-ranked penalty kill ought to swarm Minnesota's 24th-ranked power play. Buckle up! 

What have you done for me lately?

Vegas finished tied for third in the regular season with 191 goals, but since April 1, they led all teams with 59 markers and ranked second only to Carolina with 233 high-danger scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick. Although the Avalanche caught the Golden Knights in the race for the Presidents' Trophy during the final game of the season, Vegas finished 7-3-0 in its last 10 games and went on a 10-game winning streak from April 9 to April 28. 

Minnesota was solid all year long, starting the season at 12-6-0 and never looking back. Much like Vegas, the Wild went on their own April winning streak, racking up seven straight victories from April 14 to April 24. The possession numbers, particularly Minnesota's 46.04 Corsi for percentage since April 1, may tell a tale of a team unable to retain possession and generate quality chances, but that doesn't match the eye test. 

There aren't any major injuries to consider, so we can't wait for this series between two of the NHL's best regular season teams to get underway. 

The Golden Knights will win if...

Their superior talent level and scoring punch wins out. Vegas shouldn't alter its game plan all too much, and if the difference between the two teams is split, its superior goaltending and special teams ought to be the real difference maker. 

The Wild will win if...

Kaprizov takes his game to another level, Eriksson Ek and the Wild's checking line neutralize a potent Vegas scoring attack, and Cam Talbot outduels Fleury and Lehner in at least two games. Minnesota went 5-1-2 in the season series and if head-to-head matchups have any correlation, it can win by suffocating Vegas as it did all season long. 

Series Hero

Fleury. If all things are considered relatively equal, or tipping slightly in Vegas's favor, then goaltending ought to be the difference and the veteran goaltender is having one of the finest seasons of his prolific career. 

The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung Hero)

Golden Knights sophomore defenseman Hague has provided secondary offense all season (five goals, 17 points in 52 games) and is due for a breakout this summer. Hague has a cannon of a slap shot, can throw his body around, skates really well for a 6-foot-6, 230-pound blueliner, and boasted strong possession and shot-creation numbers all season. He's far from the flashiest name, but the 22-year-old is ready for more national attention. 

Prediction: Golden Knights in six. 

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