The Colorado Avalanche are defying the odds and much of it comes down to three players. By rights, they shouldn’t be this good. They are decimated by injury and have no second line. If the expected goals margin gap gets any wider it could be the Grand Canyon. Yet, on the backs of Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Cale Makar, they keep winning.
Simply put, not all chances are created equal. A scoring opportunity on the stick of these three players is worth considerably more than nearly anyone else. On any given night I would argue it’s worth more than five to eight chances, and it’s why they are having success. So before we get angst-ridden about the Avs’ advanced stats in even-strength play, let’s appreciate the top end of the talent they have assembled and the effect they have had on the team’s overall results.
Cale Makar, Superstar
Of course, we all think of the defenseman who is the fastest at his position to 200 points in NHL history. We should, this is just historic:
That said, the greatest team improvement over the past few weeks has been a penalty kill now functioning around 70 percent instead of 50. Maybe it has to do with shifts like this, where Makar simply dominated a penalty kill. He is such a dynamic player, a lethal force on the ice that cannot be ignored. There is no question that the Carolina Hurricanes could have been better on this shift, but he simply overwhelmed them with energy and determination.
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Playing at this level in the face of a catastrophic injury bug has allowed Jared Bednar—or forced him, depending on how you look at it—to play Makar for nearly half the game since their return to North America. One has to ask how long Makar can keep that up, but when the team is missing two of their top four defensemen it may be the best available option.
MacKinnon Can’t Be Stopped
Over that same stretch, the top line of Rantanen, Arturri Lehkonen, and MacKinnon has played around 22 minutes a night. They played 23 against a St. Louis Blues team they might have beaten if not for Jordan Binnington’s 45 saves and a couple of blown wide-open chances. Or perhaps if MacKinnon had made a mark on the powerplay. Maybe he just needed to stick handle more, like he did against the Washington Capitals on Nov. 18.
I would argue we are watching the most dominant 5-on-5 player in the league. He is scoring at a mind-boggling rate of 1.71 points per game and is headed for what might be his best statistical season. There is no defensive solution for his opponents. His somewhat unorthodox angles of attack force defensemen to pivot in ways they either can’t or don’t want to, and his world-class acceleration opens up chance after chance for himself and his teammates. He can’t, and won’t, be stopped.
Rantanen – A Dominant Force
Incredibly, Mikko Rantanen is making the argument that HE is the best 5-on-5 player in the league. Has there been a better player recently? According to the NHL’s Top Players of the Week (ending Nov. 13), the answer is no.
Over a stretch where the schedule has involved a trip to Europe and some top-tier opponents, Rantanen has elevated his game. He is on pace to score 60 goals this season, an incredible feat that would put him in the running for the Rocket Richard Trophy. And as incredible as his scoring prowess has been this season, his ability to physically dictate the terms of a game despite only registering one hit per game is just as incredible. Speaking of hits:
Ouch. Calvin de Haan is no small guy, but Rantanen is big and plays even bigger. He can just beat opponents in so many ways, which has made the line he is on a pure juggernaut.
The Avalanche are nowhere near out of the woods when we look at their overall record, but they are getting through a tough stretch of their schedule and winning important games. Over their past 10 games they are 7-3-0, but that’s better than the team deserves. If the playoffs started tomorrow they would be a middle seed, given that they are 11 points short of the first-overall Boston Bruins. They are still an uneven team with no second-line center.
However, every time this reporter looks at the roster and thinks they are finally going to falter, the Holy Trinity of MacKinnon, Makar, and Rantanen deliver another vintage performance. As long as they can stay healthy, it feels like the Avalanche are one trade for a center away from getting back to their dominant ways.
John is a veteran hockey reporter. He started in 2003 and is proud to be a member of THW network. Originally from Winnipeg he makes his home in the Laurentians, where winter sports are the main activity. He follows the Avs, Habs, and Jets, and loves running down rumors. His favorite play by play caller is Dan Robertson, which made the 2021 Habs run all the more magical.