As a congested summer calendar packed with the NHL Entry Draft, the Seattle Kraken’s Expansion Draft, and free agency concludes, all eyes turn to the start of the 2021-22 season. The reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners, the Colorado Avalanche, set their sights on another league title, this time hoping to pair the mantle with postseason success. Unfortunately, the playoffs are months away, but in the meantime, the team makes its annual trek through the regular season, offering several appointment viewings along the way. Here are five of the most intriguing games on the schedule when factoring in the potential for refreshing novelty, entrenched rivalries, and clashes between NHL titans.
Stanley Cup Challenge – Oct. 23 @ Tampa Bay Lightning
Despite the Lightning shedding the entirety of their vaunted third line in the offseason, the back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions still represent a formidable challenge for any team. This early-season matchup gives the Avalanche the chance to evaluate their progress against one of the model franchises of the sport, and one which has averaged 3.33 goals per-60-minutes over the last two seasons. With the Avalanche ranking first during that same period (3.41), any encounter between the two promises a dazzling display of offensive skill which showcases the best the NHL has to offer. Who passes down an opportunity to watch the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Nathan MacKinnon, and Cale Makar simultaneously occupy the same sheet of ice?
After a turbulent offseason of their own, the Avalanche are keen to retain their status as one of the league’s heavyweights, and the Lightning represent an appropriate measuring stick. Both teams enter 2021-22 with a number of new faces and their respective coaches view the start of the season as the ideal time to experiment with line combinations and deployment. Strap in for what could be a preview of this year’s Stanley Cup Final – there’s a good chance at least one of these teams reaches the playoff summit.
2021 Playoff Rematch – Oct. 26 vs. Vegas Golden Knights
What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, except for the Golden Knights dismantling of the Avalanche over the course of six excruciating games — that memory lingers. Colorado spent the summer nursing its wounds, stung by the disappointment of experiencing a thorough beatdown after such a promising start to the second-round series. After a resounding 7-1 loss on the road in Game 1 and a crushing overtime loss in Game 2, Vegas outscored the Avalanche 17-8 en route to four straight wins to claim a berth in the final four. This game is fascinating for no reason other than seeing how Colorado responds to such a publicly humiliating capitulation – which version of the Avalanche shows up?
The first of three regular season match-ups against the Golden Knights sets the stage for revenge for the Avalanche, but it’s playoff success that they ultimately crave. Whether or not a win comes at the expense of an irritating rival, any enthusiasm generated by a victory early in the season is dampened by Colorado’s demons. The rest of the conference poses little legitimate threat to Colorado’s postseason chances, and a date with the Cup likely goes through Vegas barring an unimaginable collapse by the two Western juggernauts. What’s that? Both franchises are plagued by a recent history of underwhelming playoff exits at the hands of less talented opposition? I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.
A Cascadian Conflict – Nov. 19 vs. Seattle Kraken
Colorado’s first meeting with the NHL’s 32nd franchise offers welcome novelty after a season spent cycling through the same group of divisional opponents. It also reunites them with a pair of familiar faces in Joonas Donskoi and Philip Grubauer, both lured away by the Kraken during this summer’s offseason frenzy. Beyond that, there’s no bitter history between the organizations, but as longtime Avalanche fans know, that can change in an instant. If the two can quickly forge a competitive rivalry, future match-ups instantly become more highly anticipated and memorable, which is vital for trudging through the occasional slog of an 82-game regular season.
Beyond the sparkle of a new franchise, facing Seattle gives fans the chance to watch several unheralded players who have been given a new lease on NHL life with the Kraken. Like the Golden Knights before them, the expansion outfit could surprise, stifling opponents with a suffocating forecheck and icing a roster stuffed with players used to occupying secondary roles, but hungry to establish themselves as top talents in the league. As a result, public projection models predict that the budding franchise hovers around the Western Conference playoff picture, with some having the Kraken claim one of the Pacific Division’s three automatic qualifying slots. New jerseys? New rivalries? New stars? No matter your reason for watching NHL hockey, there’s something for everybody.
Western Conference Title Match – Feb. 26 @ Vegas Golden Knights
Is it lazy to include the same opponent twice? I don’t think so, especially when one considers that the Golden Knights are one of the few teams able to occasionally dictate the run of play against the Avalanche – a rare feat. The two Western Conference superpowers spent the entire 2020-21 season in a struggle for the league’s best record and eventually finished tied in points. Although the Avalanche were awarded the Presidents’ Trophy on the basis of the regulation plus overtime (ROW) wins tiebreaker, the squads are very evenly matched – even after a summer defined by significant roster turnover on both sides.
This is also the last of the season’s encounters, meaning there are limited opportunities to take valuable points off of their main competitors. The outcome of this meeting likely determines the postseason seeding which is imperative for maintaining home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. The Avalanche were a buzzsaw at home in 2021, winning 22 of 28 games in Denver. Yet, when away from friendly confines, the team only managed to emerge victorious in 17 of 28 contests. It may not seem like much, but when it comes down to battling an adversary of a similar skill level, they’ll need any advantage you can get. The quality of personnel possessed by both sides combined with the sizeable impact on Stanley Cup odds makes this mid-February tussle a can’t-miss affair. Who doesn’t love a good sequel?
The McDavid Show – Mar. 21 vs. Edmonton Oilers
Not that it needs explaining, but any game involving Connor McDavid is must-watch. The NHL’s most dynamic superstar rampages through the most stout of defences, and the Avalanche’s run-and-gun style lends itself to a back-and-forth affair where both team’s offensive stars can flourish. Further, Oilers’ general manager Ken Holland has finally surrounded his generational talent with a worthy supporting cast, acquiring winger Zach Hyman (Toronto Maple Leafs) and three-time Stanley Cup champion Duncan Keith (Chicago Blackhawks) in the offseason. If the two-time Hart Trophy winner can score at a 150-point-pace over a full year while singlehandedly carrying the husk of an Oilers’ roster in past seasons, relying on more capable teammates suggests that he could somehow become even more frightening in 2021-22.
With the 2020-21 schedule ravaged by COVID-19, the Avalanche and Oilers have not met since the early part of the 2019-20 campaign as a result. In the first of two match-ups that season, McDavid exploded for six points, which all came before the start of the third period, and suggested he could threaten Darryl Sittler’s single-game record of 10. A new benchmark didn’t end up coming to fruition, but the inspired performance only further demonstrated what the Oilers’ captain is capable of doing on any given night. Miss this one at your own risk.
Stanley Cup or Bust in 2021-22
Since the 2019-20 season, the Avalanche have accumulated the most points in the NHL, beating out the Boston Bruins, Lightning, and Golden Knights for the distinction. Immaculate regular season performances aside, Colorado has failed to replicate that success in the playoffs, stumbling at the second-round hurdle in three consecutive seasons. In fairness, conquering the regular season is a necessary precursor to the postseason, but even another Presidents’ Trophy-winning campaign does little to alleviate frustrations percolating around the concourse of Ball Arena. So, enjoy the highlighted fixtures but remember, it’s all for nought if the Avalanche once again fall flat when the stakes are the highest.
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.