In what has been a wild, unpredictable 2020-21 NHL season, the battle for divisional supremacy between the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche has been one element that has largely played out as expected.
Amidst divisional surprises like the rise of the Minnesota Wild and the struggles of the St. Louis Blues to secure playoff positioning in the less-than-deep West, the clash for the top spot has pretty well-gone chalk. Just as many NHL analysts suggested ahead of the season, the Golden Knights and Avs appear to be going down to the wire for the No. 1 spot.
Vegas and Colorado sit two points apart atop the division, with only Minnesota in sniffing distance. The Knights have won seven straight, while the Avalanche had won four in a row and nine of 10 before a COVID pause slowed their momentum. Both clubs have enjoyed hot stretches of play and appeared as though they were poised to assume a stranglehold, so it seems fitting that the division crown will come down to who catches fire in the late stages.
Provided Colorado encounter no further unforeseen obstacles in a return to the ice, they will resume play on Thursday against St. Louis, with three rescheduled contests to be announced. Vegas, who will go for their eighth win in a row on Wednesday night vs. the San Jose Sharks, are surely anticipating their final two regular-season meetings with the Avs next week.
Over their final 11 games, the Knights may find themselves in a tough position against opponents fighting for their playoff lives, with games against the Blues, Arizona Coyotes, and to a lesser extent, the Sharks. Colorado seems to have a softer schedule, albeit with three games left against St. Louis and 13 games to play overall. Assuming their makeup games push the schedule past May 8, Vegas could ultimately end up watching their Honda West Division fate unfold.
What They’re Fighting For
Heading into the 2020-21 season, there had already been some projecting that the West would produce a sharp talent drop after the top three teams. That outlook has proven largely true, although it’s something of a surprise that the Wild and not the Blues round out that top three. In any event, the 14 points that separate third-place Minnesota from the Coyotes loom large.
For whomever out of the Golden Knights and Avalanche finishes second, a first-round date with the Wild awaits. That’s particularly problematic for Vegas, who have dropped four of six games between the clubs, with two more forthcoming. Colorado won five of the eight head-to-head meetings but would surely prefer a playoff series with the Coyotes or Blues (they are 10-2 in those games).
Looking beyond the very different playoff path for each team in the first round, the division winner would also hold home-ice advantage in a potential, hotly anticipated second-round clash. While a season played during a pandemic without packed arenas might seem to diminish the impact of home ice, the Golden Knights and Avalanche have each lost just four times in regulation at home this season.
As it stands, games at T-Mobile Arena are being played in front of just over 3,000 fans, while Colorado’s Ball Arena has been hosting approximately 4,000 fans. Those numbers could still increase as restrictions continue to ease between now and late May.
The good news for both the Knights and the Avs is that a spot in the postseason is all but confirmed – and could be official within the week. But merely making the playoffs isn’t the end goal for either club. No team cruises to the Stanley Cup unimpeded, and so this is where things get tough for the West’s top two teams. But how tough, exactly? The next few weeks will go a long way in determining just that.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.