As the end of the 2022-23 NHL regular season (April 14) creeps ever closer, the Colorado Avalanche are still unsure about the identity of their first-round playoff opponent.
The Avalanche sit third in the Central Division with a record of 44-24-6 (94 points in 74 games), trailing the Dallas Stars (second with 94 points in 74 games) and the Minnesota Wild (first with 97 points in 75 games).
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Using regulation wins (RW) which is the first standings tiebreaker, the Avalanche (31 RW) lag behind both the Wild (32) and Stars (33), although Colorado can count 38 regulation plus overtime wins to the 37 sported by both Minnesota and Dallas.
Their place in the division isn’t due to a lack of effort as, despite horrendous injury luck this season, the Avalanche are sixth in the league by points percentage (PTS%) since Feb. 1. Unfortunately, both the Wild (fourth) and Stars (11th) have been similarly successful, preventing the Avalanche from gaining ground on their division rivals.
Working in the Avalanche’s favour is that according to Tankathon’s calculations, they own the fourth-easiest remaining schedule down the stretch. Three of their final eight games come against the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks, both bottom-five teams in the NHL this season. Win those games against teams more interested in winning the Connor Bedard sweepstakes and things look a lot rosier.
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Not to be outdone, the Stars (10th-easiest) and Wild (15th-easiest) face fairly manageable schedules to end the season so that recent loss to the Wild looms large in the greater playoff picture.
With the Avalanche virtually a lock to make the playoffs, let’s look a little closer at who could be lining up opposite the defending Stanley Cup champions in Round 1.
Wild, Stars, Kraken, and Jets Most Likely First-Round Playoff Matchups
Although the Avalanche missed their chance to directly take points off of the Wild, they still have one game remaining against the Stars (April 1). The result of that weekend matchup could dictate who wins the Central, and which two of the three leading teams in the division will have home-ice advantage in Round 1.
Going further, winning the division could make a great deal of difference in opponent quality in the first round. If they win the Central, the Avalanche likely play one of the wildcard hopefuls in the Seattle Kraken, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, or Nashville Predators, all weaker teams than the Wild or Stars.
Of the four teams vying for the two wildcard spots in the Western Conference, the surprising Kraken are in the strongest position to qualify for the postseason. Who could have seen that coming?
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Not only do they hold a five-point lead on the Jets and a seven-point lead on the Flames as the current owners of the first wildcard, but they have one of the easiest remaining schedules with one game in hand on both clubs. With 90 points in 74 games, the Kraken sit eight points ahead of the Predators, but are even on games played.
If the Predators win their game in hand on the Flames and Jets, they would leapfrog the Flames but still sit outside of the second wildcard spot. Crucially, that trio of teams is scheduled to engage in a makeshift round-robin affair, with each team playing the other two one more time before the season is up.
As a result, the Kraken look poised to claim the top wildcard spot in the West, leaving the other three to duke it out for the scraps. Depending on the rest of the West, that reality could dictate who the Avalanche see in Round 1.
Golden Knights the Favourite for West’s Top Seed
With how the Pacific Division is shaping up, the Avalanche will most likely play the Kraken if they win the Central. The winner of the regular season Western Conference title will face the team in the second wildcard spot. At this point, that’s likely to be one of the Jets, Flames, or Predators judging by the points already accumulated and remaining schedule strength.
The Vegas Golden Knights currently lead the Western Conference with 99 points in 75 games. They hold a two-point lead on the Wild (even on games played), a three-point lead on the Los Angeles Kings (even on games played), a two-point lead on the Edmonton Oilers (one more game played), and a five-point lead on the Avalanche and Stars (each with a game in hand on Vegas).
Though the Golden Knights have the inside track on the conference crown, the West’s top seed is all but locked up. They are still slated to play the Wild (twice), Kings (once), and Stars (once) over their final eight games, with each matchup carrying massive ramifications for playoff seeding.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s model, the six teams still in realistic contention for the top seed in the West are separated by the slimmest of margins. They project the Golden Knights to finish first with 107 points, while the Stars are projected to finish last in that group with 104 points.
A three-point spread across six teams means there is everything to play for heading into April, but the Avalanche may have missed their best opportunity to jump into the driver’s seat.
Avalanche’s Playoff Destiny Could Slip Out of Their Control
Despite the Avalanche failing to capitalize on a pivotal opportunity to wrestle control of the Central from the Wild in their last game, the fate of the division (or the conference for that matter) is not yet decided.
The season’s final two weeks will see all three of the Wild, Stars, and Avalanche play either seven or eight games, with a mere three points separating the trio of contenders. At this point, the Avalanche are almost entirely at the mercy of their divisional and conference foes, hoping that they slip up in one or more of their final slate of games.
The uncertainty involved with watching the nightly scoreboard is more when the chance to be in control was agonizingly within the Avalanche’s grasp. Now, they wait.
Data courtesy of Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick, and the NHL.