“The Second Round” is a phrase that is spoken about in hushed tones by Colorado Avalanche fans in recent years, as many Avs faithful hope to appease the hockey gods and allow for a return to playoff success they enjoyed in decades past. Colorado hasn’t advanced past the second round since the 2009-10 season, but recent history has been much more vexing.
The Avalanche boast the top record in the Western Conference this season, and have qualified for the playoffs for five straight campaigns. However, the last three exits have all come in that fateful second round. Despite winning eight playoff games in the second round alone over the past three seasons, the Avs have failed to advance.
Are the Avs cursed? Here’s a look back at those last three playoff losses:
The Good: 2019 vs San Jose Sharks
Of all the second-round exits, this is the one the Avalanche can actually feel good about. They rocked the end of the regular season just to get into the tournament, and won a first-round series as heavy underdogs. It’s devastating anytime you lose a seven-game series, but the 2018-19 version of the Avs was probably lucky to get as far as they did.
Colorado needed to go 8-1-2 over its final 11 games just to qualify for the 2019 postseason, and then shocked everyone by dispatching the Calgary Flames – the West’s best regular-season team – in just five games. The San Jose Sharks were next, and they had the second-best record in the West that season. San Jose won Game 1, and the teams alternated victories after that. Gabriel Landeskog forced a Game 7 with an overtime goal in Game 6, but the Avs couldn’t overcome two early Sharks goals in Game 7.
There were a lot of positives from that season. Nathan MacKinnon scored 41 goals, his only 40-goal campaign. Mikko Rantanen scored 30 goals for the first time in his career. Grubauer emerged as a No. 1 goaltender, and Cale Makar splashed onto the scene. This playoff exit was less about the start of a second-round curse, and more about an overachieving team setting the tone for the future.
The Bad: 2020 vs Dallas Stars
This second-round series just had bad luck surrounding the entire thing. This postseason was played in the playoff bubble due to COVID, but injuries hammered the Avalanche throughout the entire series. Dallas took Game 1 of the series 5-3, but Colorado lost both Grubauer and defenseman Erik Johnson to injuries that game. Neither played again that season.
The loss of Grubauer was especially damning, since he was 5-1 in his previous six playoff starts with a sparkling .922 save percentage and 1.87 goals-against average. Pavel Francouz started the next three games, winning one despite giving up a total of 13 goals, but then he also incredibly got hurt. That opened the door for Michael Hutchinson, who the Avs acquired in a February trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Hutchinson actually won Games 5 and 6 for Colorado, but gave up five goals – including the overtime winner – in the Game 7 loss.
This is the closest series that Colorado faithful can call a curse. Starting three goaltenders over the course of any playoff series is ridiculous, and losing Grubauer was something they didn’t recover from. However, the Avs were on their way to becoming a contender. They won four more regular-season games than they had in 2018-19, despite playing a dozen fewer games. MacKinnon was a Hart Trophy finalist for the second time in his career, and Makar won the Calder Trophy. After Dallas made the Stanley Cup Final, Colorado felt it might be on the verge of something big.
The Ugly: 2021 vs Vegas Golden Knights
Anybody who didn’t think the Avalanche were getting through to the conference finals in the 2021 playoffs was lying. Colorado won the Presidents’ Trophy and rolled through the first round by sweeping the St. Louis Blues, and then took a 2-0 lead on the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round. Grubauer stole Game 2, making 39 saves as the Avs won 3-2 in overtime, and it looked like Colorado had taken Vegas’ best punch.
Except the Avalanche didn’t win again in the series. The Golden Knights rammed four straight wins through Colorado, solving Grubauer to the tune of 17 goals over the final four games. Game 3 was a big factor, as Vegas won 3-2. Colorado had only 20 shots on goal in that game, matching its lowest total of the season, until the Avs mustered just 18 shots in the Game 4 loss. They took their foot off the gas in Game 3, gave Vegas a sliver of hope back into the series, and the Golden Knights ripped it open.
After winning six in a row to start the playoffs, losing four straight might seem like the extension of a curse. However, it was more the Avalanche running into a bad matchup against a team that simply made the right adjustments, outcoached and outplayed them. As tough as that series was to swallow, it was an important step into the development of the team, and allowed team president Joe Sakic to make more insightful moves at the trade deadline entering this season’s playoffs.
The Unknown: 2022 vs St. Louis Blues
If there is a team that can kick this second-round slump, it’s this year’s Avalanche squad. They were the best team in the Western Conference all season, and a front-runner for the Presidents’ Trophy for the bulk of the campaign. They got career years from multiple players, and MacKinnon looks like a guy bent on erasing the despair from his final press conference last season.
This Blues team is no slouch, but Colorado beat them twice in their three games this season, with the lone loss coming in St. Louis’ opening game of the campaign. There might be some hand-wringing amongst Colorado fans over the fact that this is a second-round series, but every advantage points to Colorado in this matchup. As long as they can stay healthy, the Avs should (finally) burst through the second round.
Do the players know this roadblock is there? Certainly. Most of them have played through the bulk of it. Are they cursed? Nah. This just shows what everybody should already know – winning the Stanley Cup is really hard. But even if there is something dark hanging over the team, all perceived curses (see the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs) come to an end. This should be the year that it happens. If it isn’t? Then Avalanche faithful will have plenty to complain about for another year, and Sakic might have to answer some tough questions with his team.
Lifelong storyteller and experienced hockey reporter that has covered everything from major juniors to the NHL. Worked for various newspapers across Minnesota and North Dakota, and now covering the Colorado Avalanche for THW.