Avalanche Will Test the Predators

While many people credit the Colorado Avalanche for having an incredible comeback season, few actually think they can defeat the Nashville Predators for one game, let alone a series.

There are reasonable concerns about the Avalanche’s chances. Colorado went 0-3-1 against the Predators during the regular season. The last time the Avalanche beat Nashville was during the 2016 season. The Avalanche haven’t been to the postseason in four years. Colorado is the youngest team in the NHL who had 11 rookies play this season. Coach Jared Bednar is only finishing his second season coaching at the NHL level.

The Predators won the Presidents’ Trophy for most points for the season this year. Nashville made it to the Stanley Cup finals last year, taking the series to six games. GM David Poile is a genius. Coach Peter Laviolette has been an NHL coach since 2001, won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes and has a couple other appearances in the Stanley Cup finals. They have a veteran team getting paid top dollar.

All of those are good reasons.  But there’s more to the story.

Coach Bednar Engineered a Comeback Season

Coach Jared Bednar has done a remarkable job turning around a franchise which seemed to have lost it’s will to win. In any other year, he would be considered the leading candidate for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year but the Vegas Golden Knights have their own success story. The Avalanche finished at the bottom of the NHL last year with a very meager 48 points, 21 points below the next lowest contender. This year, the Avalanche earned 95 points, a remarkable 47 point swing in a year. The last team to make such a big jump was the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Head coach Jared Bednar of the Colorado Avalanche
GLENDALE, AZ – OCTOBER 29: Head coach Jared Bednar of the Colorado Avalanche (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

Last year Bednar was hired three weeks before the start of the season. He didn’t have a chance to hire his own coaching staff. The team had already added players to fit former coach Patrick Roy’s system. Many players had come to Colorado specifically to play for Roy. With his sudden departure, the whole organization was in turmoil.

Avalanche GM Joe Sakic stated the new vision for the team was younger and faster. He then went about drafting key prospects, adding some young veterans to fill in holes, and then made a blockbuster trade which included adding 19-year-old defenseman Sam Girard – from the Predators. Even David Poile admitted his reluctance to trade the promising Girard but believed the team needed another scoring threat.

Coach Bednar, despite last season’s record, has a proven history of turning around teams and developing talent. He led the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays to a Kelly Cup victory in only his second season as their head coach. He then went on to become an assistant coach in the AHL for the Columbus Blue Jackets for a few years before taking on the role as head coach of the Cleveland/Lake Erie Monsters, their AHL affiliate. The Monsters went on to win the Calder Cup championship in Bednar’s second year as head coach. It’s also interesting to note the Blue Jackets made the playoffs that year with a 108 point season, with a host of players growing up in the organization with Bednar.

The Avalanche Boast the Best Top Line in Hockey

The Nashville Predators have a lot of depth, but they don’t have a scoring line like the Avalanche. Nathan Mackinnon racked up 97 points, 33 points more than Filip Forsberg, Nashville’s leading scorer. In the running for the Hart Trophy as the most valuable player, he also finished fifth in NHL scoring, despite playing eight fewer games than the scoring leader, Connor McDavid. MacKinnon found a new gear and it earned 44 more points than last year.

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon
Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

If MacKinnon were the only threat on Colorado’s top line, that might be containable. But winger Mikko Rantanen also outscored Forsberg by 20 points while Avalanche Captain, the third member of the line, notched 62 points, two shy of Forsberg and one more than Victor Arvidsson. Rantanen more than doubled his last season point total and Landeskog improved by 29 points.  All three players are having a landmark year. Nashville does not boast a front line like the MacKinnon-Landeskog-Rantanen combination. If that top line plays their best hockey, Nashville will struggle to compete.

Colorado’s Rookies Are the Team’s Secret Weapon

Finally, the Avalanche have a lot of rookies and young players who haven’t been in this situation before. While to some that’s a detriment, to this team it’s an advantage. 11 rookies played in a Colorado jersey this year. They have used the ‘youngest team’ label to inspire themselves, embrace the underdog mentality and build a cohesive unit. Colorado has turned all the reasons for them to fail as an opportunity to build a unique bond, brothers in overcoming one setback after another. As one player goes down, another comes in. No excuses, take no prisoners, next man up. They have proven resilient in adversity. Rookie defenseman Girard has averaged 20 minutes a game playing on the blueline going into the final stretch of the season while NCAA pickup Alexander Kerfoot and Tyson Jost have become the solid third line the team has needed.

Avalanche center Alexander Kerfoot
Avalanche center Alexander Kerfoot (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Younger teams have the ability to improve as the season goes on because they are developing new skills and learning how to compete at the NHL level. While veterans may amp up their game as the postseason approaches, the young guns have been working on the upward spiral all year, getting better, smarter, and tougher. The veterans already are playing their best game. The young guys haven’t hit their peak yet. Colorado is learning with each game they play that they have what it takes to win and the confidence is building.

Nashville Has to Overcome the Burden of Recent Success

Nashville, meanwhile, carries the weight of expectation from last year’s success and their success in the regular season. A Presidents’ Trophy winner should win the postseason but that hasn’t worked out so well for the Washington Capitals. Only eight teams out of 31 who earned the trophy actually won the Stanley Cup. Some teams actually play better from an underdog position, just like Nashville did last year, coming from an eighth seed to the finals.

The Avalanche have no such issue. Many critics have suggested Nashville will not only beat Colorado in the series but will sweep. And their reasoning makes a certain amount of sense, if you haven’t watched this team. Hopefully, the Predators also take Colorado lightly.

An interesting thing happens when young hockey players compete against the odds. They don’t know what they can’t do. The Avalanche can be an explosive, dominant and unpredictable force. There is no pressure on them to perform or worry about what they need to live up to;  they have already exceeded expectations. Many of the same analysts predicting a sweep also predicted the Avalanche would be bottom of the league again this year. Colorado is playing with house money. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain. And that makes them dangerous.