3 Keys to Blues Overcoming Avalanche in Round 2

The St. Louis Blues survived a tough first-round matchup against the Minnesota Wild, winning the series in six games. But the road doesn’t get any easier from here. They are set to face the Colorado Avalanche, fresh off a dominating four-game sweep of the Nashville Predators, led by 10 points from dynamic defenseman Cale Makar. Many view the Avalanche as the best team in the NHL and the presumptive Stanley Cup favorites, and the odds are stacked against the Blues. MoneyPuck gives the Blues a 30.3 percent chance of prevailing in the series. Other projections are even less kind.

Related: Avalanche’s Makar Early Conn Smythe Trophy Favourite

The odds are certainly stacked against St. Louis, but these series aren’t played on paper. The Blues showed their mettle against the Wild, particularly later in the series, and learned from early mistakes (including neutralizing the previously dominant Kirill Kaprizov in the deciding Game 6). They certainly have a mountain to climb if they want to conquer the Avalanche. But here are three things currently going right for the Blues that will be the likely reasons for success should they overcome this massive obstacle.

Reason 1: Binnington Remains in Top Form

The biggest headline from the series against the Wild is the remarkable return of goaltender Jordan Binnington. The goalie’s story needs little introduction. He rose from AHL castoff to Stanley Cup Champion in one season, leading one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NHL history. After two more solid seasons with the team, he inked a six-year, $36 million contract that secured his role as the team’s starter, or so it appeared. But a poor performance this season, combined with the meteoric rise of backup Ville Husso, ultimately cost Binnington his role as the number one and saw him start the postseason as the team’s backup. But back-to-back losses and shakey starts from Husso gave Binnington a window, an opportunity to start Game 4 and earn back his starting role.

Anyone familiar with Binnington’s career will know that when he has a shot to prove himself, he rarely misses it. Whether fueled by a chip on his shoulder or merely by the gravity of the moment, he turned back the clock and looked like the same goalie that single-handedly willed his team from last place to Stanley Cup glory. In three games, he stopped 83 of 88 shots against, carrying a .943 save percentage (SV%) and a 1.67 goals-against average (GAA). If he can continue to perform like that, he’ll be a wild card the Avalanche could not have been prepared for. Of course, his counterpart, Darcy Kuemper, is no slouch, and the series is set up to be a fantastic goaltending matchup. But Binnington will have to steal the Blues a couple of games to give them a great shot at winning this series.

Reason 2: Thomas Regains His Confidence

22-year-old center Robert Thomas was an absolute revelation for the Blues this season, leading an explosive second-half performance from his line (alongside Pavel Buchnevich and Vladimir Tarasenko). He finished with 77 points in 72 games, finding his goal-scoring touch late in the season to become the eighth (of nine) Blues forwards to hit the 20-goal mark. Blues fans have been high on Thomas for years, but even the most bullish prognosticators likely didn’t expect a point-per-game output, especially after a rough and injury-riddled 2020-21 campaign.

Robert Thomas St. Louis Blues
Robert Thomas, St. Louis Blues (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Thomas finished the season by tying the longest point streak of the season (at 17 games, with Connor McDavid). But when the playoffs started, his scoring touch largely disappeared. It isn’t that he looked terrible — in fact, head coach Craig Berube was double-shifting Thomas at times during the series, as injuries forced him to largely go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen. But Thomas’s line was not producing points. Against the Avalanche, that won’t be an option. It will be Thomas’s role to match (or surpass) the production of Colorado’s 2C Nazem Kadri, who is having a career year of his own.

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Thomas is a microcosm of the larger disappearance of depth scoring in the first-round series. Of the nine 20 goal scorers from the regular season, only five notched a single tally against the Wild. Thomas will need to lead the charge, along with his linemate Buchnevich, to give the Blues the depth scoring they will have to have to go toe-to-toe against the Avalanche. If he looks like the player fans saw most of the season, the Blues will have a chance.

Reason 3: The Blues Win the Special Teams Battle

The final reason the Blues could find success in this series may be the tallest order: if they are going to reach the Western Conference Final, they will have to find a way to win the special teams battle. The power play and penalty kill brought the Blues success in the first round, with the power play converting 30.77 percent of its opportunities and the penalty kill stopping 88.3 percent of opportunities against. While the Avalanche penalty kill struggled at times, their power play converted a jaw-dropping 43.8 percent of opportunities. Stopping it means neutralizing Makar, something no team has successfully done for long in his young career.

For the Blues to find success in this series, the power play will need to be lethal and the penalty kill will need to be rigid. They finished second in power play (27 percent) and fifth in penalty kill (84.1 percent) in the regular season, so they certainly have the pieces to do it. But doing it for the duration of a series against the Avalanche will be their toughest test to date. If they can, though, they likely will advance into the Western Conference Final, leaving Colorado to pick up the pieces of another second-round exit.

Blues Like Being the Underdog

Over the last several seasons, it seems that Berube’s Blues thrive as the underdogs. And they certainly will be here. Last season, their postseason series against the Avalanche was, to quote 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short,” a four-game sweep. That likely won’t be the outcome this season. The Blues are a talented team from top to bottom and maybe one of the few with the skill and the depth to stand toe to toe with the Avalanche.

But that’s easier said than done. For the Blues, a tough series and a second-round exit against the best team in the West is an acceptable conclusion to the season. For the Avalanche, nothing but a Stanley Cup Championship will feel like enough. If St. Louis can leverage that expectation imbalance and carry over the momentum of their first-round series, led by Binnington, Thomas, and the special teams, they may well make it to another Western Conference Final.

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