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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Avalanche vs. Jets Series Preview

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The Colorado Avalanche were going to face a tough team in the first round no matter, as the Western Conference is very deep this year, but the Winnipeg Jets might be the toughest matchup they could have gotten.

The three game season series was about as lopsided as you can get, with the Jets winning all three games and outscoring the Avalanche by a score of 17-4. The most recent game between the two teams took place just last weekend, and the Jets embarrassed the Avalanche on their home ice.

You don’t throw all of that out the window when the playoffs begin, but it is a fresh start. Those games don’t matter all that much, especially the two that took place back in December. Both teams look a lot different than they did four months ago, so the personnel isn’t quite the same.

This should be a heck of a matchup, so let’s dig in.

Forwards

Colorado’s forward group took a massive hit on Saturday, as Jonathan Drouin will miss the entire series with a lower-body injury. You just can’t replace a guy like that when an injury happens right as the playoffs start. Drouin was the fourth leading scorer up front for the Avalanche, and has spent the majority of the last few months on the top line. At practice on Saturday, Zach Parise took his place, and it’s hard to argue that’s not a significant downgrade. Parise just scored his first goal in over a month on Thursday, and it will be interesting to see if he can keep up with MacKinnon and Rantanen.

With a healthy Drouin, you could feel good about Colorado’s chances because their forward group is solid. In 18 games with the Avalanche, Casey Mittelstadt has put up 2.23 points-per-60 at even strength, which is quite high, and they’ll need him to play well against the Jets. Sunday will be his first career playoff game. The Avalanche have three point-per-game players up front, something the Jets do not boast, including potential Hart Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon.

Yeah, about that MacKinnon guy. The Jets just don’t have someone of that caliber, and MacKinnon’s 1.3 points-per-game in the playoffs is third all-time to Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux for players that have played over 50 games. Pretty darn good. Mikko Rantanen isn’t far behind at 1.24.

On the other side, the Jets are deep. Really deep. So deep that it appears they’re going to scratch Cole Perfetti, who scored 19 goals this year. Kyle Connor is a stud on the wing, and Colorado will have to keep a close eye on him all series long. Adam Lowry has had a really good season, and if he had a little more offense, probably would have been a legit Selke option (spoilers: he still snuck onto my ballot).

The other thing the Jets have up front is size. Perfetti is the only guy under 6′ on their roster up front, and they have some guys that will make life extremely difficult for the Avalanche.

It’s strange to look at the Jets numbers and see that their big guns have an expected goals % well below 50%. Most of their guys are above 50%, but Connor and Scheifele are hovering around 45%. That’s the Hellebuyck factor, but it does show there are some weaknesses defensively if you can exploit it.

Advantage: Even with a star edge to the Avalanche

Defense

This is where the Avalanche should have the advantage over the Jets, and I think they do, but you could definitely argue that some of their top guys didn’t have the seasons you expected them to have. That’s strange to say when Cale Makar put up 90 points, but he and Devon Toews were on the ice for a lot more goals against than they were last season. Makar has historically been a tremendous point producer in the playoffs, but it’s not so much the points I’m worried about with him right now.

The health of Sam Girard is a huge question mark heading into Game One. He practiced in a full contact jersey on Saturday, but his status is still up in the air. One thing the Avalanche will have this year that they didn’t have last season is a healthy Josh Manson. The veteran defenseman played against the Kraken with an injury and only last four games before leaving the series. Sean Walker is a fit for the way the Avalanche like to play, but he’s been prone to the big mistake of late, and you can’t make those against the Jets.

Winnipeg is led by Josh Morrisey, who had another outstanding season. I wouldn’t put him in Makar’s class, but he’s really good and will get some Norris love again this year. Outside of Morrisey, the Jets don’t get a lot of offense from their defense. The saying “the sum is greater than the parts” really fits with this Jets team. They don’t have a lot of big names on defense, but they are extremely hard to get chances against, and when you do get past them, you have to face the best goalie in the world.

Advantage: Avalanche

Goaltending

I think we all can see where this is going. In net, there’s a giant gap between these two teams. Connor Hellebuyck has been the best goaltender in the world this season, and gives the Jets a huge advantage in the series. If you’re the Avalanche, the only thing you might be leaning on is that Hellebuyck wasn’t very good in the playoffs for the Jets last season. Beyond that, it’s pretty clear who has the advantage.

We expect Alexandar Georgiev to start, but no one would be surprised if Justus Annunen got into some action. On Saturday, Bednar said he’s comfortable with both of them.

“I’m confident in Georgie’s ability and Annunen’s ability to win us hockey games if we play the right way,” Bednar said after practice.

The key will be how the Avalanche play in front of either netminder against the Jets. Neither one of those guys are going to win them a game, so the Avalanche need to tighten things up defensively to give themselves the best chance to win.

Advantage: Jets (by a lot)

X-Factors

Avalanche – Ross Colton

Colorado targeted Ross Colton because he’s won a Stanley Cup before and scored some big goals in the playoffs. The Avalanche could definitely use some of that against the Jets.

Colton did heat up a little bit down the stretch, scoring four points in his last six games, but that came after a long stretch where he picked up just three goals in 20 games. He’s a streaky guy, and without Logan O’Connor hasn’t quite looked the same. I wouldn’t mind seeing him get some shifts on the wing in the top six, but lack of center depth makes that difficult. The Jets will focus on Colorado’s big guns, so a guy like Colton needs to make a difference for the Avalanche.

Jets – Gabriel Valardi

Probably the biggest piece the Jets got back in the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade, and I’d say it’s worked out for them. When healthy, Vilardi has been fantastic, especially around the net. He nearly scored at a 40 goal pace, but was only able to play 47 games. Injuries have been the story for his entire career, but he’s healthy now and will likely start the series on the top line for the Jets. His size will be difficult for the Avalanche to contain down low, and he can be a difference maker for the Jets.

Final Prediction

A lot of people are writing the Avalanche off because of how they performed in the season series against the Jets, and that might be premature. The regular season matters, but the playoffs are a whole different ballgame, and the Avalanche have experience that the Jets just don’t.

I think this is going to be a tightly contested series, but I have said all along that Winnipeg was probably the worst possible matchup for Colorado, in my opinion at least. They don’t want to play the way the Avalanche want to, and they don’t care. They’re going to slow the game down and force the Avalanche to dump and chase, which they don’t want to do. If Colorado is going to win this series, they’ll have to be very patient and focus on their own end first.

During the regular season, the Avalanche had a 51.73% expected goals-for %, while the Jets were at 51.43%. That’s not exactly a big gap, so this should be close.

I’ve teetered back and forth all week with my prediction, but the Drouin news is crushing. That’s a big piece that the Avalanche suddenly won’t have against the Jets. Who could have imagined saying that five months ago?

Ultimately, goaltending matters. I don’t know what type of goaltending the Avalanche are going to get, and I’m not even sure they do. That’s a big concern.

Prediction: Jets in 7

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