The Colorado Avalanche spent two months in the middle of the season as the worst team in the NHL. They had only five wins in a 27-game span through the months of December and January. Now, they’re the first Western Conference team to advance to the second round after disposing of the top seed Calgary Flames in only five games.
While many are surprised the Avalanche were able to beat Calgary, what’s most shocking is how handily they did it – and the way in which they were able to accomplish the feat. If you had told someone before the series began that Colorado would move on, most would have assumed it was Mike Smith who cost his team the series. The veteran netminder was among the worst in the league during the regular season. He proved doubters wrong with a very impressive playoff performance – unfortunately it wasn’t nearly enough to win the series. Led by the team’s stars, the Avalanche dominated Calgary from game two on. Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen were the offensive catalyst as the big-3 combined for nine of the team’s 17 goals over the five game series.
Whether they were playing together or if Rantanen was on the second line with Carl Soderberg, it was the Avalanche all stars who were the main reason why Colorado was able to accomplish an impressive 56% even-strength shot share over the series. What’s most impressive is that they were able to do it against Calgary’s 3M line – a combination that is often lauded as one of the best 3-zone lines in the league.
Not only did Colorado’s top forwards play like it, but the team was able to completely shut down the most lethal lineups in the NHL. No team scored more goals than the 289 the Flames put up this season. The trio of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk combined for 107 goals over the regular season – they were only able to score four through the five game series.
A lot of it has to do with the fact that Philipp Grubauer has been the best goalie so far in the playoffs. Something that isn’t overly surprising given that he was the best performing goaltender over the last month of the regular season.
The Avalanche won the possession and shot battle in games two through five, but Grubauer was there when he needed to be. He made the big save when it was needed and allowed the Avalanche to take the risks necessary to out-play the Flames.
Grubauer’s play is aided by a defense group in Colorado that is woefully underrated around the league. The veteran combination of Erik Johnson and Ian Cole gave the Avs the kind of rugged, shut-down play you need to be successful in the postseason. After a rocky regular season, Ian Cole has looked like a new man in the playoffs as he’s helping to prove the old-school thinking that certain players just “know how to win” in the playoffs. The two didn’t play together for large chunks of the even-strength play but if there was a defensive zone faceoff in this series, you could count on Johnson and Cole being out there for the Avalanche.
Cole was able to step up in a big way once Samuel Girard left the series with an injury, but it was Tyson Barrie that made the biggest impact. Tyson Barrie has been a man on a mission over the last six weeks and if it weren’t for Nathan MacKinnon’s Hart Trophy worthy performance, Barrie would be the team’s MVP right now. He dominated nearly every shift during this series – and not just offensively, he was near perfect in all three zones.
Then there’s Cale Makar. The 20-year old rookie went from Hobey Baker winner to National Championship runner-up to looking like a legitimate star in the NHL playoffs. He’s only played three professional hockey games but Makar already looks near unstoppable. The Sportsnet panel compared him to Rob Blake during the intermission Friday night and it’s hard to argue with that analogy. He makes an impact in all three zones and has the kind of easy to his play that only comes with superstar players. He’s not there yet, but it’s easy to see that the sky is the limit for the young defender.
Coach Bednar is giving Makar a lot of offensives zone starts, so he’s is being sheltered to an extent – something that is to be expected. He’s been able to pass every challenge with flying colors and it’s obvious the coaching staff is gaining trust as Makar was on the ice for an important defensive zone faceoff in overtime of game four. We all knew he was good, but it’s not likely anyone thought he’d be this good, this fast.
Ending the series Friday night in Calgary could provide a big advantage for the Avs going forward. The team is now able to head home and rest while they wait for the winner of the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights series. The time off will give Derick Brassard time to get over his illness but more importantly it will give Sam Girard time to recover from the upper body injury he suffered in overtime of game two.
Game one of the second round won’t start until Wednesday or Thursday of next week at the earliest, that gives the team nearly an entire week to rest, recoup and get some practice under their belt with the new star rookie in the fold.
Most around hockey wrote this team off in February, now they’re the hottest team in the NHL. The Avalanche are playing with house money from here on out. They’ve gone further that even many of their fans wouldn’t have imagined and now they have every reason to believe they can keep winning in these playoffs – regardless of their opponent.