On Thursday, the Colorado Avalanche are will open the playoffs against the Minnesota Wild in a series that was determined on the last day of the season. For the last month it seemed that Colorado was destined to face the Blackhawks in the first round, but a late season collapse by the St. Louis Blues (that would make the Maple Leafs proud) saw the Avalanche take the division. In the end, its the Wild vs. the Avs in an old North West Division match up. Below I outline five things the Avs will need to have to out duel the Wild and advance to round two.
Win the Goaltending Match-Up
You need strong goaltending to be successful in the playoffs. This is a recording. Throughout the years we have seen several cases of the kind of impact a hot goaliw can have on a series. J.S. Giguere, Dwayne Roloson, Jonathan Quick, Cam Ward, and Tim Thomas are all recent examples of how a hot goaltender can win a series, or the Cup, essentially by himself. While the goaltenders on both sides ended the season playing their best hockey all year, the clear advantage between the pipes goes to the Avalanche. Varlamov is a Vezina candidate, and if the Avs go deep this year it will be on his back. In 19 playoff games as a Washington Capital, Varly had a 0.915sv% and a 2.49 GAA. He was also under the age of 22 during the majority of these games.
The story in net has been very different this year for Minnesota. They have seen four different goaltenders share the load due to injuries and Josh Harding’s unfortunate condition. Bryzgalov started the year without a home before he signed a try-out contract with the ECHL Las Vegas Wranglers. Not long after, the Oilers picked him up and after he put up respectable numbers (for Edmonton), he was dealt to Minnesota at the deadline. He’s been able to take the reigns from Darcy Kuemper and gave the Wild some stability between the pipes down the stretch run. Although he has been playing some of his best hockey in years, he is still wildly inconsistent and has put up a .906sv% or worse in his last 3 playoff appearances.
While I expect Varlamov to have the advantage over his countryman, it is important he gets out to a strong start and build confidence. The Avalanche don’t need him to continue his gaudy numbers to win this series (though it would help), all they need is for him to out duel Bryzgalov and make timely saves. In the playoffs it’s never how many you make, but when you make them that counts.
Offense from the Defense
The Avalanche finished the season as the 4th highest scoring team in the league, and a big reason was offense from the blue line. In fact, Colorado’s back end contributed to 20% of the scoring for the team, higher than any other team in the top five. Erik Johnson tied his career high in points, and both Tyson Barrie and Nick Holden had breakout seasons with 38 points in 64 games and 25 points in 54 games, respectively. This is a stark contrast from a season ago, when the defense scored a total of 5 goals for the team (ouch). With injuries to their forwards adding up, it’s important that the defense continue to be aggressive and produce for the Avalanche. Which leads into my next point.
Health and Contributions from Call Ups
The injury bug has bit the Avalanche at the wrong time. Though P.A. Parenteau returned from a knee injury, Tyson Barrie, Jan Hejda and John Mitchell have all been hurt since. This means that in addition to several of Colorado’s top players making their playoff debuts, there area few depth rookies that have only recently made their Avalanche debuts. Three key players did not participate in practice today – Matt Duchene, John Mitchell and Jan Hejda. That’s the team’s 1st and 3rd line centers, along with their #2 defenseman.
Thankfully, Tyson Barrie’s injury is not as serious as it looked and he and Hejda could start game one. Either way, AHL call ups Brad Malone and Paul Carey will be starting on the team’s fourth line, and Stefan Elliott could even see some action. It’s not only the fact that these rookies be thrust into the intensity of playoff hockey that should be concerning for Avs fans, but that others will have to step up and play a more prominent role on the team. Regular fourth liners like Cliche, McLeod and Boredeleau will have to be solid in third line roles if the Avalanche hope to be successful. The good news is that the Avalanche are on the mend. Patrick Roy mentioned to reporters that John Mitchell is likely to return during the series, and game 4 will be exactly four weeks after Matt Duchene went down with a knee injury in which he was expected to miss 4-6 weeks. If the Avalanche are able to insert these two back in the lineup before the series is over, it could mean the end for Minnesota.
Nathan MacKinnon Needs to Shine
Nathan MacKinnon is my X-factor for this series. It is not a question of if he will play well, but exactly how well. With Duchene out, the Calder favourite has be moved back to center between Ryan O’Reilly and P.A. Parenteau. The Stastny and Landeskog have been phenomenal for the Avalanche down the stretch, but they will need MacKinnon to be a difference maker in Duchene’s absence. He will likely be assigned Mikael Granlund’s line and this matchup between two skilled, young centers could very well decide the series.
If he struggles early on, look for Patrick Roy to move him back to right wing with Stastny and Landeskog. This could seriously limit the Avs’ scoring ability as the line of McGinn – O’Reilly – Parenteau had 0 points and went a combine -4 in the last two games of the season. However, MacKinnon is no stranger to the spotlight, and his Memorial Cup MVP honours suggest that he actually thrives under the added pressure of the post season. If the Avalanche advance to round two, look for MacKinnon to be a major reason why.
Deal With Being the ‘Favorite’
All season long, the Avalanche have been the underdog. At the beginning of the season, few had them even sniffing the playoffs. By the Olympic break, they were a ‘nice story’ that would make the playoffs but would fall off during the stretch run. Then they clinched home ice, but were destined to face the Blackhawks in what many saw as a first round exit. On the last day of the season, the Avalanche clinched the Central Division title and finished 3rd overall in the league. After being written off all year, suddenly expectations are not only high in Denver, but around the league. 11 out of 12 ESPN “experts” have the Avalanche moving to round 2, and Scott Morrison of Sportsnet has them outdueling Montreal for Lord Stanley in June. It will be interesting to see how the players respond to this change in public opinion. Will their playoff inexperience or over confidence be their downfall? Or will they be able to tune out all of the chatter and just go play their game? Only time will tell, and I can’t wait to see.
Prediction: Avs in 6, with game 6 going to overtime.