Avalanche’s Defense Has Team On Cusp of the Stanley Cup

There has been a lot of pomp and praise around the offensive presence of the Colorado Avalanche during this postseason. It has come with good reason, as the Avs have been one of the highest-scoring NHL teams over the past few seasons.

But this playoff run has been about something else. Colorado made it out of the second round for the first time in 20 years, and finds itself in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the team hoisted the trophy back in 2001. But what might come as a surprise to some, this team’s run through the postseason has come on the heels of its defense, not its offense.

Makar Leads Complete Group

Cale Makar has arguably been the best player throughout these NHL playoffs, and his play has him as the frontrunner to win the Conn Smythe Trophy – just barely ahead of teammate Nathan MacKinnon. He’s currently tied for fifth in playoff points, but all four of the players in front of him have played more games. Makar is also tied with teammate Devon Toews and New York Rangers star Adam Fox for goals by a defenseman during the postseason with five.

Cale Makar Colorado Avalanche
Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, Makar’s stellar play is only a part of the equation. Avalanche defensemen have combined for 14 goals and 56 points in Colorado’s 14 playoff games. The only playoff team that comes even close to those numbers is the Rangers. Behind Fox’s five goals and 23 points, New York’s defensemen have a total of 10 goals and 45 points in the playoffs, but the Rangers have played three more games than Colorado.

Five different defensemen have scored goals for Colorado in the playoffs, and six different blueliners have points. But they’ve all been involved in the offense. Four defensemen – Makar (51), Toews (34), Bowen Byram (30), and Josh Manson (28) – have accounted for 143 shots. That’s almost as many shots as the top four centers (155) on the Avalanche. That number includes a whopping 82 from MacKinnon, who leads the team in shots on goal in the postseason by 31. As a unit, they’ve rattled off 185 shots on target, which is 25 more shots on goal than the next closest defense corps in the postseason. The Edmonton Oilers and Rangers are tied for second with 160.

The sparkling offensive numbers are only half of the story for Colorado’s blueliners. They are also allowing the fewest shots against per game at 28.2 per contest. The Tampa Bay Lightning are the next closest team out of the four that advanced to the Conference Finals, at 32.6 shots against per game. Only the Dallas Stars (2.14) and Tampa Bay (2.50) are allowing fewer goals per game this postseason than Colorado’s 2.86.

Goaltender Depth Shines Through

It’s been a rough postseason for Darcy Kuemper, but not because he’s played poorly. The Colorado netminder has missed time in six games in these playoffs due to injury. The Avalanche haven’t missed a beat without him, however, as backup Pavel Francouz has gone 6-0 with a 2.86 goals-against average (GAA) and .906 save percentage (SV%). That’s not far behind Kuemper’s numbers of a 6-2 record with a 2.65 GAA and .897 SV%.

Pavel Francouz Colorado Avalanche
Pavel Francouz, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In Game 3 of the first round against the Nashville Predators, Kuemper was forced to leave after getting poked in the eye through his facemask by Ryan Johansen’s stick. That meant they ended up splitting the wins in the sweep of the Predators, allowing just nine goals across the four-game series. Kuemper was especially sharp in Game 2, stopping 25 of 26 shots to help Colorado win 2-1 in overtime.

Kuemper did all of the heavy lifting in the second round, playing every minute against the St. Louis Blues in the six-game series win. He wasn’t able to transfer that momentum into the Western Conference Final, however, as he left in the middle of the Avs’ raucous 8-6 victory in Game 1. But Francouz was up to the task – just like he was in the 2020 postseason when then-starter Philipp Grubauer went down.

Related: Avalanche Give Francouz a Well-Earned Contract

Clearly, neither of these goaltenders were on any postseason awards list, but they’ve been up to the task in the playoffs. Francouz showed he was no slouch by shutting out the Oilers in Game 2 of that series, and he made at least 27 saves in the subsequent victories as the Avs closed out their second sweep of the 2022 postseason.

Impact on Stanley Cup Final

There is a sense that the offense will always come for the Avalanche, but this defense corps has proven they can be just as deadly to opposing goaltenders. The 14 goals by defensemen account for 21.5 percent of the goals scored by the Avalanche in the playoffs, and a defenseman has scored a goal in nine of their 14 postseason contests.

Both Avalanche goaltenders have gotten considerable action this postseason too. Head coach Jared Bednar hasn’t decided who will start Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, but that problem is a good one to have since both are playing well. Francouz missed all of 2020-21 recovering from surgery but managed to appear in 21 games this season. He went 15-5-1 with a 2.55 GAA and .916 SV%., so he’s no stranger to success.

Devon Toews Colorado Avalanche
Devon Toews, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Moving forward, the Avalanche will be taking on a team with another fantastic defensive group – no matter who advances out of the Eastern Conference. The Rangers are led by last year’s Norris Trophy winner in Fox, but Jacob Trouba and Ryan Lindgren have also been great in the playoffs too. While the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning are anchored by former Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman and stout two-way defender Ryan McDonagh.

Add in a stingy goaltender – either Igor Shesterkin for New York or Andrei Vasilevskiy for Tampa – and Colorado’s defense is going to have to be sharp moving forward. As good as the defensive players have been for the teams in the Eastern Conference Final, whichever team emerges might be playing catch-up, trying to slow down their counterparts across the ice in the Avalanche.