With their 4-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday night, the Colorado Avalanche kicked off 2022 with a bang, hoping to set the tone for what promises to be a grueling second half of the 2021-22 season. The Avalanche understand what is at stake this year, with consecutive playoff disappointments and looming contract extensions for their stars ratcheting up the pressure in the halls of Ball Arena. Luckily, Colorado can count on a forgiving January schedule to get on the right track.
Compared to their closest Western Conference rivals, the Avalanche anticipate facing a number of the NHL’s minnows, giving them the ideal opportunity to sharpen their tactical strategy as the playoffs inch closer. As a result, Colorado could quickly scale the conference standings by taking advantage of their weak opposition and numerous games in hand. Let’s dig in.
Avalanche Hitting Stride as NHL Calendar Turns to 2022
Although the game against the Ducks marked their first on-ice contest in over two weeks, the Avalanche picked up where they left off in 2021, grabbing their seventh win in 10 games. The start of the 2021-22 season was defined by uncertainty, with numerous injuries and COVID-related absences forcing an almost nightly juggling of the lineup. However, the Avalanche have recently looked more like their old selves, reaping the results to show for their efforts.
Since the beginning of December, Colorado ranks sixth in points percentage while scoring 3.66 goals per-60-minutes at five-on-five, second behind only the Florida Panthers. They’ve also maintained a net-positive ledger in possession (53.8% Corsi for; seventh in the NHL) and dictate a healthy share of scoring chances (56.5% SCF; fourth). For a team that’s spent much of the year without its key contributors, driving play is a solid foundation to build off of once the roster settles into a consistent groove.
In net, Darcy Kuemper once again resembles the reliable goaltender he was with the Arizona Coyotes, posting a .925 save percentage (SV%) in five games since the start of December. If he continues to deliver even a league-average performance as the last line of defense, the Avalanche could begin to match their Presidents’ Trophy form from last season. Given Colorado’s defensive stability, that shouldn’t be too tall an order, but goalies are voodoo. You never know who might submit a Vezina Trophy caliber campaign and who could transform into a pumpkin overnight. That’s part of the fun, isn’t it?
Now that we’ve established that the Avalanche is starting to fire on all cylinders let’s look at how their schedule in January matches up with their closest Western Conference contemporaries.
Avalanche’s January Opponents Are Among the NHL’s Worst
The NHL points system is flawed, but we can still use points percentage as a simple proxy for each team’s relative strength of schedule. As you can see in the table below, Colorado’s upcoming match-ups are less harrowing than those of their rivals by any chosen definition.
|Team||Remaining Games in January||Opponent PTS%||Games Against Opponents in Playoff Position|
|Vegas Golden Knights||10||0.624||8|
|St. Louis Blues||12||0.577||6|
Colorado owns the weakest upcoming schedule because January sees them play the Arizona Coyotes twice, the Chicago Blackhawks three times, and the Montreal Canadiens once. Only a third of the monthly fixtures come against teams currently occupying post-season slots, the lowest ratio among the Western Conference’s top five squads by points percentage. As a result, the Avalanche can enjoy the enviable situation of controlling their destiny without needing to pull out all the stops to make headway in the standings.
Notably, the St. Louis Blues and Calgary Flames face-off twice in January, with the Avalanche likely hoping that the two settle both of their match-ups in regulation to avoid the awarding of the dreaded loser point. If Calgary were to emerge victorious in both of those affairs, Colorado could overtake the Blues and claim the Central Division’s pole position by the end of the month. Consequently, their dust-up with the Minnesota Wild could decide the division’s mid-season king, with Minnesota nipping at St. Louis’ heels even after the results of the 2022 Winter Classic.
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Elsewhere, the Vegas Golden Knights (80%) and Flames (70%) spend an overwhelming amount of January going head-to-head with teams currently in playoff position. Eight of Vegas’ 10 games come against teams among the top 13 in points percentage, with the Blackhawks and Canadiens the lone wallflowers on the calendar.
In particular, the Golden Knights are set to confront several Stanley Cup contenders, facing each of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, and Washington Capitals over several weeks. As of this writing, that pentuple represent the NHL’s five strongest sides by total points. Although Jack Eichel’s long-awaited return is a definite cause for celebration, the Golden Knights’ ruthless schedule means that the festivities could be short-lived. Still, no real concern exists that Vegas seriously grapples with missing the playoffs, but that is an unforgiving slate of games by any stretch of the imagination.
Avalanche Have Games in Hand on Western Conference Rivals
Although the Avalanche lag behind the Blues (five points) and Golden Knights (seven) in the Central Division and Western Conference standings, respectively, they carry several games in hand on each of their direct rivals. In only playing 28 games this season, the gap in total points becomes much more discrete, appearing in five and seven games fewer than the Blues and Golden Knights, respectively. Of the teams I included in this analysis, the Flames come the closest to matching the Avalanche, although they’ve still played an additional two games. As a result, Colorado’s outlook for the rest of the season is more optimistic than first assumed.
The Avalanche’s dominance becomes apparent when adjusting for total games played, with the club leading the Western Conference in points percentage (.679). Astonishingly, that rate of point accumulation only puts them seventh league-wide, as the NHL’s balance of power has shifted to the Eastern Conference in 2021-22. In any case, Colorado must capitalize on the opportunity to make up ground if the team is to maintain its sterling reputation. That’s much easier said than done, I’m afraid.
Can the Avalanche Show Their Stanley Cup Potential?
It appears that things are coming together for the Avalanche as 2022 rears its head. Their injury-stricken lineup is finally approaching full health, Kuemper is beginning to look like the net-minder that was promised, and the feebleness of Colorado’s upcoming schedule allows them to accelerate into top gear without being seriously challenged. As every member of the organization understands, it’s third round or bust, and even that might not be enough for the Stanley Cup hopefuls.