The NHL’s top two teams in the regular season began their second-round series in what was expected to be the most competitive and perhaps the most physical matchup of the 2021 Playoffs. Only the latter was true on Sunday night. Game 1 had several hard hits, some questionable hits, and melees. But in the end, the Colorado Avalanche owned the Vegas Golden Knights in every aspect that mattered.
Any concerns about the Avs being rusty after six days of rest were immediately eliminated, and the Golden Knights struggled to generate scoring chances early. They were coming off just one day of rest after a hard-fought seven-game series win over the Minnesota Wild. Here are the takeaways from the Avs’ 7-1 Game 1 blowout.
Avs’ Top Line Was Unstoppable Again
The Avs’ top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen was expected to be the biggest threat that any team would face in the playoffs. But in Game 1, they were an insurmountable force, and each player on that line had at least one goal and two points. Defenseman Cale Makar was also an integral part of their success, with a team-high four points on the night.
Mikko Rantanen, the Avs’ leading goal scorer in the regular season, got the offense started. Makar created a turnover in the defensive zone that was brought out by Devon Toews. Toews made a pass up high to a speeding Rantanen, who was found the back of the net with a backhander.
Giving up that goal might have been uncharacteristic of Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner, the Avs’ top line scored four more times, three at even strength, to prove the first goal was no fluke.
After the Avs’ penalty kill prevented the Golden Knights from tying the game, the Avalanche moved the puck perfectly to set up an easy tap-in by captain Gabriel Landeskog for a comfortable 2-0 lead in the first period. MacKinnon continues to look like the most talented scorer on the ice. From scoring through the five-hole to getting a speedy breakaway goal to setting up Landeskog’s second goal of the night, MacKinnon was outstanding. Can anyone stop him? If not, the Avs’ top line might be too much for any opposing defense to handle throughout the playoffs.
Avs Sensational Defensive Pace Prevails Over Hard-Hitting Golden Knights
This series is going to be a heavyweight bout between two of the league’s most stellar defenses. Both rank in the top three with the fewest goals allowed per game in the regular season and playoffs. Colorado’s defense, which specializes in speed, dictated the pace early and often in Game 1.
They knew that the hard-hitting Golden Knights would try to intimidate, but that didn’t stop them. The defense kept up with each Vegas push by winning crucial battles at the blue line. Their quick puck movement out of the defensive zone has made it difficult for opponents to generate scoring chances all season and continued on Sunday. This, combined with strong passes upfront, prevented the Golden Knights’ aggressive blue line from gaining any momentum. They struggled to keep pace with the Avalanche’s speed throughout.
Series Will Be a Very Physical One
Game 1 was a bumpy affair, as the two teams combined for 79 penalty minutes. In the second period, Avs defenseman Ryan Graves was called for interference on a questionable hit that sent Mattias Janmark to the locker room. The Golden Knights made sure to let Graves know he could not glide freely with hit after hit for the rest of the game.
With the game well out of reach by the third period, as the Avalanche had a 6-1 lead, the bitterness between the teams escalated. First, Max Pacioretty delivered a nasty reverse shoulder hit on Avs defenseman Samuel Girard. Then Golden Knights defenseman Ryan Reeves cross-checked Colorado netminder Philipp Grubauer and then punched Graves in the back of the head, which left Graves on the ice for several minutes. Reeves received a match penalty for intent to injure. The hits instigated a series of fights and trips to the penalty box, and all three hits will be reviewed by the league, which could result in suspensions.
Both teams will have to be more disciplined in this series if they want to avoid losing key players. But Colorado’s ability to stay on the ice and remain unfazed by the Golden Knights’ aggressive tactics says something about both their resilience and grit, which will continue to be put to the test.
But if the Aalanche can continue to play like they have all playoffs, they should have a fun time against the Golden Knights this series. The star-studded Golden Knights however, will probably have something to say about that.
Ben Rossi covers the Colorado Avalanche for THW. He can also be found writing and co-hosting the Exit Velo Podcast for the website BackSportsPage. For BackSportsPage he covers hockey, the Oakland Athletics, Major League Baseball news, and other sports stories that stretch beyond the playing field. Graduated with a degree in Journalism from the University of Denver where he covered the Denver Pioneers college hockey program as an undergraduate staff writer for the DU Clarion.