After 82 gruelling regular-season games, the Colorado Avalanche‘s journey toward hockey’s biggest prize begins Tuesday night against the Nashville Predators in the first round of the 2022 NHL Playoffs. This series is a tale of two teams on opposite sides of the Western Conference spectrum. The Avalanche finished as the top seed, while the Predators slipped into the final wild card slot after blowing a lead to the Arizona Coyotes in the last game of the season.
Despite the 22-point discrepancy between the two clubs in the standings, all hope is not lost for John Hynes’ group. The Predators boast one of the NHL’s most dynamic blueliners and watched several forwards achieve career-highs in a number of statistical categories. Now, let’s dig into how each team can emerge victorious in this opening-round matchup.
Avalanche Forward Group Arguably NHL’s Best
Before we delve into the Avalanche’s vaunted forward group, let’s heap some praise on several Predators who enjoyed a scoring renaissance this season. After tallying only 65 points in 100 games over the previous seasons, Matt Duchene registered career-highs in goals (43) and points (86), more often resembling the player being paid $8 million a year. Both Mikael Granlund (64) and Ryan Johansen (63) eclipsed 60 points, and sniper Filip Forsberg scored at a 50-goal pace through 69 games.
Tanner Jeannot (second in hits) and Yakov Trenin (31st) add a different dimension to the Predators’ lineup, representing physical presences who could potentially unnerve the Avalanche’s collection of skilled forwards. Time and space come at a premium in the playoffs, and enacting a physical toll in exchange for those resources could be the key to Nashville’s success. Their overall group is not as deep as Colorado’s, but their blend of toughness and skill could prove to be a nuisance for an Avalanche team expecting a quick out in the first round.
On the other hand, the Avalanche can trot out both offensive superstars, and unheralded depth capable of making a difference by feasting on weaker competition. When it comes to points per game (P/G), they account for four of the top 22 forwards in production, more than any other team. Nathan MacKinnon (88 points in 65 games), Mikko Rantanen (92 in 75), and Gabriel Landeskog (59 in 51) are three of the usual suspects, but it’s Nazem Kadri’s unexpected outburst that takes this array of talent to the next level. The much-maligned pest stepped up early in the season when his team was hamstrung by injuries and finished 18th in league scoring with 87 points in 71 games. If he can keep his notorious temper in check, his presence gives the Avalanche a formidable one-two punch down the middle along with MacKinnon.
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Elsewhere, rookie forward Alex Newhook (33 points) could be a potential breakout star, and Valeri Nichushkin and deadline acquisition Artturi Lehkonen are among the NHL’s best two-way forwards. Throw in the sharpshooting Andre Burakovsky and an assortment of pesky bottom-six forwards, and the Avalanche have a diverse stable of attackers at their disposal. The Avalanche also scored the third-most goals per game in the NHL this season, and that trend shouldn’t stop in the playoffs.
Defensive Duel Highlighted by Norris Trophy Contenders
In the Avalanche’s Cale Makar and the Predators’ Roman Josi, this series is set to showcase the frontrunners for the Norris Trophy. The two defensemen sit first (Josi) and second (Makar) in blueline scoring and carry the brunt of their respective teams’ workload in transitioning play up the ice. The pair should put on a display reminiscent of two jousters going head to head in a duel, taking turns slicing up the other’s defensive structure. Josi is the X-factor in this series – as he goes, so do the Predators. His 96 points represent the highest total for a defenseman in the salary cap era, and neutralizing his forward dashes should be the Avalanche’s top priority.
On the Avalanche side is Makar, the 23-year-old defenseman looking to win his first Norris of what is quickly turning into a decorated career. Trailing only Josi on the defensive scoring leaderboard, the third-year talent was two goals away from becoming the first blueliner since Mike Green in 2008-09 to score 30 goals in a season. If not for his Swiss counterpart’s extraordinary campaign, the young defender would be a lock for the Norris. Even so, he will look to build off of his strong record of production in the playoffs (31 points in 35 games) and push the Avalanche towards their ultimate goal of winning their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Apart from Josi, the Predators’ can roll out a dependable, but unspectacular defence core. Dante Fabbro complements Josi’s galavanting with his keen defensive awareness, and Mattias Ekholm is still a solid stalwart even as he departs his prime. The team’s bottom pair of Mark Borowiecki and Matt Benning has done serviceable work and can be trusted in spot duty.
For the Avalanche, their defensive excellence extends far beyond Makar. Devon Toews made a darkhorse case for the Norris this season when available (57 points in 66 games; 57.2 xGF%), and Samuel Girard continues to function as an extraordinary puck-moving outlet with his evasiveness and agility. Although far from their best years, the veteran duo of Erik Johnson and Jack Johnson has provided reassurance on the backend while making simple, yet effective plays to drive the play forward.
Related: Avalanche’s Record Against NHL’s Best Proves Stanley Cup Case
One intriguing storyline will be the play and development of Bowen Byram, who was on the verge of enjoying a true breakout season before concussion-related issues sidetracked his campaign. He’s since returned to the lineup and enters the postseason after tallying 17 points in 30 games. If he regains the momentum he manufactured prior to his extended absence, the Avalanche could have yet another gem to utilize in high-leverage moments.
Saros Injury Gives Avalanche Huge Goaltending Advantage
In what amounts to a cruel turn of events, the Predators’ star goaltender Juuse Saros is set to miss the first two games of the series. His injury is a tremendous blow as the Finnish workhorse was frequently discussed as one of the NHL’s sturdiest netminders. He accrued the most starts this season (67) while posting a .918 save percentage (SV%) and 12.6 goals saved above expected (GSAx), both the ninth-best marks among goalies with at least 10 games played. In Saros’ absence, one of David Rittich or Connor Ingram should be tapped to take the reins, inspiring little confidence in the Predators’ ability to complete an unexpected upset.
Neither goalie has approached anything resembling league average this season, and the pair boasts a single NHL playoff appearance between them. Ingram has had success at the American Hockey League (AHL) level, but the postseason is a different beast. Unless one of the two transforms into Dominik Hasek-incarnate, this series could get ugly in a hurry.
In the Avalanche goal stands Darcy Kuemper, acquired from the Coyotes in the offseason to replace the departed Philipp Grubauer. After a slow start to the campaign, he gradually found his game and thrust himself into the Vezina Trophy discussion by season’s end. Among goalies to have played in at least 10 games this year, he ranks sixth in starts (57), fifth in SV% (.921), and fifth in GSAx (16.2). It’s not difficult to play well behind a squad as loaded as the Avalanche, but it’s no guarantee for success either.
Whether it’s injury troubles in the 2020 Playoffs, or Grubauer’s second-round implosion last season, the Avalanche have yet to establish consistency in goal in recent postseason runs. Kuemper owns a .913 SV% in 18 career playoff games, although many of those came while backstopping an underdog Coyotes organization. If he performs closer to his career regular-season mark of .918, the high-octane Avalanche could have enough of an insurance policy to let their big guns run loose and dictate their preferred style of play. With Saros healthy, the Predators stood a chance. Without him, the goaltending battle lies firmly in Colorado’s favour.
Special Teams Battle Could Be Key To Predators’ Success
Special teams play is sure to be a decisive factor in the outcome of this series, with both the Avalanche (first) and Predators (fifth) among the most effective teams at drawing penalties this season. The Predators are much less disciplined though, taking the second-highest rate of penalties in the league compared to the Avalanche who commit the 12th-most infractions. If there’s one thing they want to avoid in the hopes of winning this lopsided series, it’s to stay out of the penalty box against a team with the weapons to punish you at will.
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In being at a decided disadvantage at every position (until Saros suits up) the feisty Predators must exploit any potential benefit that could present itself. Nashville owns the sixth-ranked power play (24.4%) and could overpower the Avalanche’s middling penalty kill, which ranks 15th with a 79.7% kill-rate.
Yet, just as the Predators could prey on an average penalty kill, so too could the Avalanche. Colorado’s power play is just as potent (seventh at 24%) and Nashville’s shorthanded units have been underwhelming as well (18th at 79.2%). Their kill-rate isn’t an accurate representation of their penalty-killing ability though. In terms of chance quality conceded while down a man, the Predators sit 28th overall (8.34 expected goals against per-60-minutes). It appears as though Saros’ play has disguised the true ineffectiveness of their penalty kill, and his absence could be their undoing on several fronts.
Which Team Will Advance to the Second Round of the NHL Playoffs?
Ultimately, the Avalanche should overwhelm the Predators and advance to their third consecutive second-round appearance. Even before Saros’ unfortunate injury, the wide gulf in talent made it difficult to see the Predators pull off an upset. Without arguably their regular-season MVP, this series shouldn’t last longer than five games.
Final Verdict: Avalanche win series 4-1
Data courtesy of Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, and the NHL.