After 21 harrowing years, the Colorado Avalanche have returned to the Western Conference Final, with the Edmonton Oilers the only team left standing between them and their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 2001. Although the rapidly ascending Avalanche is the most successful regular season franchise since the 2019-20 season, the second round remained the biggest hurdle in reaching their championship potential. In vanquishing the pesky St. Louis Blues, their biggest stars got the job done and are one step closer to permanently etching their names into NHL lore. For that to happen, these four players must step up against the Oilers.
The Avalanche have sported a recent history of their goaltenders falling flat in the playoffs and for a moment, it appeared as though the affliction had infected Darcy Kuemper as well. After a regular season in which he played at a Vezina Trophy level, the 32-year-old netminder was impenetrable against the Nashville Predators in the first round. He stopped 57 out of 61 shots (.934 save percentage – SV%) and prevented 0.76 goals above expected (GSAx) before missing the series’ clinching game due to injury.
The Blues were poised to undoubtedly be a more imposing opponent, but the Avalanche dominated the series at 5v5. They took 60.5% of the shots (SF%), accumulated 59.8% of expected goals (xGF%), and compiled a 62.9% share of scoring chances (SCF%). By all measures, the Blues should have been done and buried in five games or less.
In a significant reversal from his first-round output, Kuemper allowed minus-4.62 GSAx while posting a dismal .892 SV% over the six-game series. In particular, his play in Games 4 (.850 SV%), 5 (.833 SV%), and 6 (.900 SV%) let the Blues crawl back from the brink. Only an unexpected Darren Helm game-winner just before overtime finally drove the proverbial stake through the heart of the Blues.
Kuemper’s 2022 Playoff ledger stands at a .904 SV% and a minus-3.86 GSAx over nine games. When a team is loaded with as much talent as the Avalanche are, a few hiccups can be excused and navigated with ease. Still, they narrowly escaped the Blues’ clutches and the Oilers enter the Conference Final as the highest-scoring team in this year’s playoffs (4.33 goals per game). He must return to his regular-season form for the Avalanche to stand the best chance of brushing aside Connor McDavid and his band of merry men. Which Kuemper shows up in Round 3?
After a spectacular regular season in which Nazem Kadri tallied career-highs in assists (59) and points (87) and was named an All-Star, he’s continued his breakout in the playoffs. After two rounds, he ranks third on the Avalanche in goals (five) and fifth in points (10) while firing the fourth-most shots on goal (34). He has traditionally been a strong postseason performer (39 points in 46 games) and was a crucial component of Colorado’s second-round triumph.
Judging by how head coach Jared Bednar deployed Kadri in the Blues series, it’s likely that the 31-year-old center is handed the plum assignment of shutting down McDavid and the Oilers’ top line. At 5v5, he played most frequently against three of St. Louis’ top forwards in Vladimir Tarasenko, Pavel Buchnevich, and Robert Thomas and emerged victorious in the possession and scoring chance battle.
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When Kadri hit the ice at 5v5, the Avalanche controlled 68.3% of shots (SF%), 66.1% of expected goals (xGF%), and 67.9% of scoring chances (SCF%). On top of his defensive duties, he led the team in goals (four) and was tied for the lead in points (seven), all of which came at even-strength. That he was such a force while dealing with a torrent of social media abuse makes his performance even more commendable, not that it’s something anyone should have to experience or be framed as an obstacle to overcome.
Kadri also demonstrated growth in maturity by staying away from extracurricular activities, particularly as Blues players attempted to injure him in the games immediately following the Binnington incident. It’s a direct departure from the emotional outbursts that have hurt him and his teams in the past and bodes well for the Avalanche as they march through the playoffs. If he continues to be a leader for the team at both ends of the ice and slows down McDavid, the Avalanche will be making a long-awaited appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.
McDavid’s main running mate Leon Draisaitl has matched his extraordinary playoff production step for step, but Mikko Rantanen has yet to replicate that feat for his superstar teammate in Nathan MacKinnon. After leading the Avalanche in goalscoring during the regular season with a career-high 36 goals and ranking second in shots (254), the well has run dry thus far for the Finnish winger. He’s only potted a single goal through two rounds and is tied for seventh in shots (24). Rantanen’s playmaking has remained constant (10 assists in 10 games), but his scoring drought coupled with a diminished shot rate is cause for concern.
Although Rantanen has spent most of his 5v5 minutes playing alongside Valeri Nichushkin and MacKinnon (113 each), the Avalanche’s vaunted first line has been split up for the most part. Gabriel Landeskog, Rantanen, and MacKinnon have only played 39 minutes together so far, with the dynamic triumvirate spread out to create a more balanced lineup.
Even so, the trio has dominated on the few occasions that they have been trotted out. Among forward lines with at least 30 minutes played, the Avalanche trio ranks first in shot-share (76.3%), 11th in chance quality (64% xGF%), and have outscored opposing lines 3-0. Bednar hasn’t used his superstar trio too often in these playoffs, but it’s a significant ace biding its time in his pocket.
Rantanen’s history of strong playoff performances (63 points in 53 games) suggests that he can raise his game when needed, but his goalscoring prowess is required to overcome a team just as capable of putting the puck in the net. Landeskog (six goals in 10 games) and Kadri (five in 10) have picked up the slack, but having the Finnish sharpshooter find his scoring touch could be the tipping point in this series.
When Samuel Girard was ruled out for the remainder of the playoffs, the Avalanche’s significant depth on the blueline took a sizeable hit. Despite lacking the flashiness of someone like Cale Makar, the diminutive defender is an integral part of Colorado’s livewire style, using his skating ability to evade forecheckers and kick-start rapid breakouts. With considerably less effective transition players taking his place in the lineup, it puts even more pressure on the likes of Makar and Devon Toews to facilitate Colorado’s game plan. Enter Bowen Byram, whose poise shone through in the second-round defeat of the Blues, and a player who must maintain his level of play to overcome the speedy Oilers in Round 3.
Among defensemen with at least 30 minutes played at 5v5 in these playoffs, Byram sits first in SF% (65.7%), first in SCF% (70.4%), 13th in xGF% (61.7%), and second in high-danger chances (70.8% HDCF%). He also finished the series against the Blues with five assists and points, with those totals tied for first and fourth on the team respectively. The young rearguard tallied 17 points in 30 regular-season games in 2021-22 so it’s not as though the production is unexpected, but to do so under the bright lights of the playoffs is a different endeavour entirely.
Despite being thrust into a top-four role in the aftermath of Girard’s season-ending injury, Byram showed why the Avalanche are considered Stanley Cup favourites. Even while missing a key cog in their system, the 20-year-old blueliner seamlessly adapted to heightened responsibilities at both ends of the ice. If he continues to gain confidence in utilizing his obvious skillset, the Oilers will have trouble solving the Avalanche’s defensive puzzle.
Can the Avalanche Overcome the McDavid Machine?
Among skaters to have played in at least eight games in a single postseason, McDavid owns the seventh-highest point-per-game pace (2.17) since 1967-68, with only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Daryl Sittler posting a higher rate. His is the most impressive playoff performance to date in this century, and the Avalanche must overcome McDavid’s supernova impersonation to make its franchise’s third-ever Stanley Cup Final appearance. If the aforementioned players can play at the levels they are capable of, doing so becomes a much more manageable endeavour.
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.