Well, here we are again. Fresh from a rousing first-round victory, extra time off for good behavior, a second-round series about to begin. There is optimism. There is excitement in the air. There are peeks ahead to the potential third-round matchups and, yes, even a fourth, otherwise known as the Stanley Cup Finals. For the Colorado Avalanche and their fans, this is familiar ground. What is unfamiliar ground? That’s easy: getting out of the darned series still alive.
That awesome, original, just-for-Colorado Hockey Now Drew Litton cartoon above tells the story. Round 2 is usually when things are just getting started for anything, including really good hockey teams. For the Avalanche of the last three years, it’s been the hurdle too tough to scale.
Three years ago, against the San Jose Sharks, Colorado came into Game 7 of the second round fresh off a blowout victory over the Sharks and there were real optimism the Avs could pull off the minor upset at the Shark Tank. But an upper-body injury to Nathan MacKinnon and a dubious offside call on Gabe Landeskog, which wiped out a Colin Wilson tying goal and the Avs’ growing momentum, were too much to overcome in a tough one-goal loss.
Two years ago, up in the bubble in Edmonton, the Avs had a 4-3 lead with just over three minutes left in another Game 7 against the Dallas Stars. Vladislav Namestnikov had just scored to put the Avs ahead, and I was in the otherwise empty arena trying to come up with my wittiest lead paragraph and ready to rebook my Airbnb another week, at least, for Round 3. But a Nazem Kadri turnover and the shaky goaltending of third-stringer Michael Hutchinson quickly killed that. The Avs lost in overtime, and I was back on a plane to Denver the next day after 50 straight days in Edmonton.
Then, the worst one of all. Last year, against the hated Vegas Golden Knights, up 2-0 in the series, a 6-0 record to that point, the Avs somehow lost four straight to get knocked out of Round 2.
So, here are again. Round 2, St. Louis Blues the opponent. We all know the reasons why this should be the year the Avs at least jump over this Round 2 hurdle. This is a deeper team, in all areas. The Avs have the best 1-2 defensive pairing in the NHL in Cale Makar and Devon Toews. Combined, the two were a +100 in the regular season. They had seven players with 20 or more goals, three with 30 or more. They added four real good pieces at the trade deadline that have made them even tougher.
Entering tonight’s Game 1 at Ball Arena, the Avs are a fully-healthy team. Everyone is available to coach Jared Bednar if he needs them. So, this is the year, right? Right?
“We’re excited to play, and come out strong,” Nathan MacKinnon said Monday.
But, anyone expecting a easy series probably hasn’t taken too hard a look at the Blues’ stats on the season. While the Avs had seven 20-goal scorers, the Blues had nine. They have a lot of guys still on the roster that won a Stanley Cup three years ago, led by former Av Ryan O’Reilly. They have a goalie, Jordan Binnington, who won that Cup and who is coming off three great wins over the Wild that closed out their first-round series. Forget about last year’s first-round sweep of the Blues, or anything that happened in the past quite frankly. The score now is 0-0, and MacKinnon, for one, knows this will be another tough Round 2.
“It’s going to be a big challenge for us forwards, just winning our matchups,” MacKinnon said. “Especially, each of the first three lines. We’ve got to be really solid defensively, really good with the puck. Good defense makes the best offense.”
Where the Avs have a clear edge is on defense. St. Louis will enter the series without Torey Krug, a fine player who coach Craig Berube could count on for 20-25 quality minutes a night usually. While the Blues were able to overcome his absence in the Wild series, it won’t be as easy to do that against the Avs. The Blues just don’t have a top pairing equal to Toews and Makar, and the bottom four of the Avs’ defense is strong too.
The goaltending matchup of Darcy Kuemper vs. Binnington? Hey, it usually does come down to who can make the biggest saves in the biggest moments, and Binnington has proven he can take the pressure of big playoff games. Yet, he hasn’t been the same money goalie since 2019. The Avs lit him up last year. Kuemper was, statistically, one of the best goalies in the league this year past December.
But, oh, wait. Did I just talk about last year? I shouldn’t have. Because, the past doesn’t matter right now. What matters is finding a way to win four out of seven games against the St. Louis Blues and get into a Western Conference final series for the first time since 2002. That’s 20 years, for those of you counting.
Again, Avs fans should NOT expect an easy series here.
“The Avs have top-end talent, some of the best in the NHL; however, the Blues have more depth at forward,” said Scott Masters, a former Avs front-office member who is a co-founder of Lacroix Hockey, with former Av Eric Lacroix. “The 3rd line matchup may change the result of series, and a positive for the Blues: The Avalanche are scary on the offensive front, even more so with best player in the playoffs so far in Cale Makar. But many fans would be surprised the Blues are better in several key categories during the regular season, including Goals For 309 to 308, PP%, 27% to 24%, PK, 84% to 78%, and Faceoffs, 50% to 47%.”
Personally, I think this is a much better Avs team than last year, and certainly from the two before that. I think they’re faster than the Blues and can exploit that defense of theirs. I think this Avs team is more patient and poised than last year’s team.
But, how mentally tough are the Avs? What happens if they get down a game in the series? Will the ghosts of the past three years start to inhabit their minds? Are they truly as cohesive as a group as they say they are?
We’ll all start to find out tonight.