Avalanche’s Record Against NHL’s Best Proves Stanley Cup Case

When gauging which NHL teams are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, the standings are often used as evidence for and against any given club. Leading your respective conference? It’s likely that the public sees you as a championship frontrunner. Stuck somewhere in the mushy middle? Nothing more than cannon fodder for the true elite groups. Still, the standings fail to tell the whole story by disguising one crucial variable: how well does each team perform against stronger competition?

It’s all well and good when a team like the Colorado Avalanche dominates the dregs of the NHL, but those types of teams fall by the wayside when the playoffs arrive. Gone are relaxed games against the likes of the Arizona Coyotes and Seattle Kraken and in their place are four to seven games against the Minnesota Wild or Calgary Flames, for example. Therefore, isolating results against the two different tiers of competition paints a more accurate picture of a team’s overall ability.

Fortunately for the league-leading Avalanche, their record against the strongest teams the NHL has to offer is one of the best among this year’s presumed Cup contenders. When the stakes are the highest, Nathan MacKinnon and his band of merry men look set to get the job done. Let’s dig in.

NHL’s Top Teams Have Varying Degrees of Success Against Playoff Teams

Given the discrepancy in team strength between the two conferences (seven of the top 10 teams come from the Eastern Conference), it’s possible that the perception of the Avalanche is inflated because of the West’s relative weakness. One way to challenge that assertion is to highlight how Colorado has played against teams currently in a playoff spot. They have obviously faced more Western Conference opponents, but that will be addressed later.

The following table presents the records of the top 10 teams (by points percentage) against the 15 other teams currently in a playoff position according to points percentage (PTS%). This means that games against the Dallas Stars are considered while those against the Vegas Golden Knights, are not.

Carolina Hurricanes22-8-6.694+29
Colorado Avalanche18-9-3.650+3
Toronto Maple Leafs18-9-3.650+12
Florida Panthers18-9-6.636+25
Calgary Flames17-11-5.591+20
New York Rangers18-14-2.559-3
Minnesota Wild15-12-3.550-9
Tampa Bay Lightning15-13-5.530-14
Boston Bruins12-13-4.483-17
Pittsburgh Penguins12-14-6.469-13
The NHL’s top 10 by points percentage (PTS%), ranked according to their record against playoff teams

The Carolina Hurricanes have been significantly better than the rest of the league against playoff teams, winning nearly 70 percent of their games and blowing out the competition in the process. Their plus-29 goal differential (GD) is the best among the top 10, and only three of their last 13 games come against playoff teams. The Avalanche are currently six points up on Carolina in the Presidents’ Trophy race, but the Hurricanes’ soft schedule the rest of the way gives them a (slim) chance to make up lost ground.

Colorado has a much more difficult rest-of-season schedule in comparison, with nine of their last 13 coming against playoff-bound opponents. Their early-season injury woes have contributed to their unspectacular goal difference, but they’re 10-3-3 with a plus-7 differential against playoff teams since the first of January. Health is as much of a factor in a potential Cup run as is a team’s talent, so the Avs has to hope the likes of Gabriel Landeskog and Bowen Byram can return to full strength soon.

Nathan MacKinnon Colorado Avalanche
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

For all of the consternation surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs’ inability to get it done in the postseason, they have fared very well against stronger competition this season. They boast the third-best PTS% in such matchups but will face a series of stern tests to round out the regular season. Of the eight games they have left against playoff teams, five come against their Atlantic Division rivals in the Tampa Bay Lightning (two games), Florida Panthers (one) and Boston Bruins (one). With all four within striking distance of each other, those results should have huge ramifications for the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

Other findings of note? The Lightning have been shockingly average, owning a minus-14 goal difference after winning only 15 of 33 games against their playoff brethren. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point missed significant chunks of the season, but recent results have done little to inspire confidence that the team can win a third consecutive Stanley Cup. In seven matchups against playoff teams since March 1, the defending champions have only won a single game and own a putrid minus-12 goal difference. With four games against Toronto (two), Boston (one) and Florida (one), their standing in the Atlantic is in jeopardy if this freefall continues.

Although the Pittsburgh Penguins are battling it out with the New York Rangers for home-ice advantage in the first round, they have been subpar otherwise. They have emerged victorious in 12 of 32 games against playoff teams with a minus-13 goal difference. Sure, they were missing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for most of the first half of the season, but since Malkin returned on Jan. 11, they haven’t been much better. They own a 6-9-2 record against playoff teams in that time (minus-11 differential) and play seven of their last 12 games against those teams. Even so, count out Crosby at your own peril.

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How about Colorado’s closest Western Conference adversaries? The Calgary Flames have found success against playoff teams while the Minnesota Wild’s recent hot streak (won nine of last 10) is a slight mirage. Since Feb. 1, Dean Evason’s men have only won six of 13 against playoff teams with a minus-9 goal difference. Of their final 15 games on the season, 10 come against postseason clubs which means they’ll grapple with a difficult leadup heading into the playoffs.

Of course, roads to the Stanley Cup are not created equal. If we’re only interested in whether a team can advance to the last two rounds of the playoffs (which means beating two or three conference opponents), limiting our analysis to conference play can illustrate how well teams match up against those they are likely to face. So, where do the Avalanche stand in comparison to their Western Conference foes?

How Do Stanley Cup Contenders Fare Against Conference Rivals?

Intraconference play is important. Why do the Avalanche care how they play against the Maple Leafs or Lightning if they’re not assured of getting to the Final in the first place? The following table presents the record of each of the top 10 teams against the top five teams in their respective conference, or the top six if they themselves are part of the best five.

New York10-4-0.714+13
Tampa Bay4-7-3.393-16
The NHL’s top 10 by points percentage (PTS%), ranked according to their record against the top five teams in their conference

The Avalanche still grade out fairly strongly, owning the fourth-highest PTS% against the conference’s best. Against Calgary, Minnesota, and St. Louis, they are 5-1-2 on the year with a plus-4 differential. It’s a very small sample, but the Avalanche have not had trouble winning close games against the best the West has to offer. I hate to make proclamations about a sport as unpredictable as hockey, but Colorado should have little difficulty advancing to at least the Conference Final.

Surprisingly, the Lightning and Bruins have struggled immensely against the East’s top teams, with the second-and third-worst records among the top 10. Boston plays nine of their last 14 against playoff teams, and three against the Atlantic’s fearsome triumvirate. They’re 3-3-1 with a minus-5 differential against those three to this point, but the Metropolitan (particularly the Hurricanes) have given them fits.

Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Rangers have the widest discrepancy in results against playoff teams, and when divided by conference. They lead the top 10 in PTS% and goal difference, quite the turnaround from their overall record against playoff teams. So, which is the Rangers’ true form? Do they play up (or down) to their opponents? It’s difficult to make out, but having a darkhorse Hart Trophy candidate in Igor Shesterkin can mask many faults.

Avalanche Have Best Record Against NHL’s Top 10 Teams

We’ve established how the league’s strongest teams have played against playoff-calibre competition and against their likely playoff opponents, but how do they match up against the true elite? Check out the table below.

New York12-10-0.545-3
Tampa Bay7-12-4.391-23
The NHL’s top 10 by points percentage (PTS%), ranked according to their record against the rest of the top 10 teams

The usual suspects once again rise to the top. Colorado has won 12 of 18 against the rest of the top 10 but is close to break-even in goal difference. Each of Florida (plus-19), Carolina (plus-16), and Calgary (plus-19) have won more convincingly in comparison. Be wary of the Hurricanes’ numbers though, as they’ve thoroughly beaten up on the Bruins this season by way of outscoring them 16-1 in three comprehensive victories.

That sort of superiority skews the data slightly, but it’s not as though Boston is a pushover. Still, both the Bruins and the Lightning have stumbled when coming across good teams, and the Lightning in particular are not as dominant as in years past. If the Maple Leafs are to overcome their first-round hex, this could be the year to do it.

Toronto Maple Leafs Celebrate
Toronto Maple Leafs Celebrate (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For those worried about Colorado’s relatively meek goal difference in comparison to that of the Flames, consider the health situations of each team this season. According to NHL Injury Viz, the Avalanche have experienced the 16th-highest Cap Hit of Injured Players (CHIP) this season, while the Flames have experienced the lowest total in the NHL.

CHIP is a cumulative figure which adds up the per-game cap charge of any missing players in each game. This is a more relevant barometer of how dire a team’s injury situation actually is, given that it accounts for the cap hit (and by proxy, talent) of each missing individual. Such a clean bill of health can’t last forever, and the Flames are yet to deal with that kind of adversity. In fact, center Sean Monahan was just shut down for the season. Calgary has to be hoping that is the extent of the injury bug.

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Avalanche Ready To Break Playoff Curse

As I don’t have to remind everyone, the postseason is a different beast compared to the regular season. Teams exclusively battle the best, and individual matchups are critical in a series of four to seven straight games against a single opponent. The outcomes of the moves made at the trade deadline have yet to manifest, meaning we don’t know what each team truly is at the moment.

Colorado, despite all of its injuries, has maintained a favourable record against the NHL’s elite, and a full-strength Avalanche squad should strike fear in the hearts of every other fellow contender. Is this the season the franchise breaks its recent second-round curse? We will just have to wait and see.

Data courtesy of ESPN and the NHL. Statistics are accurate as of April 4.

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