Morale is high in Avaland; and why not? With a win on Wednesday over the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Avalanche have leapfrogged the Blackhawks and now hold second spot in the Central Division with a sterling 43-18-5 record. It has been a franchise altering season for Colorado. The team sits 3rd in the Western Conference, 5th in the league, and earned 40 wins faster than any other team in franchise history. That is incredible considering the President’s Trophy and Stanley Cup caliber teams the franchise has seen since moving to Denver. In fact, the last time the Avalanche had 43 wins was the last time they made the playoffs, in 2009/10 – but that was over the entire 82 game season. It’s safe to say the Patrick Roy version of the Avalanche are the real deal. With sixteen games left and the playoffs all but certain, it is time to focus on what the post season holds for the Avalanche.
The St. Louis Blues currently sit six points ahead of Colorado for the lead in the Central Division. Ten of the Avs’ remaining sixteen games are against playoff opponents, with the other six against teams fighting for their playoff lives. This will make it even more difficult to win the division, putting them in the unenviable position of playing the Chicago Blackhawks or St. Louis Blues in the first round. So, do the Avalanche have a chance against either of these Stanley Cup contenders?
At first glance, facing the defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks looks like a death sentence for any playoff hopes. The numbers, however, paint a different picture. The Avalanche have been a thorn in the side of the Hawks in recent years, going 6-2 in the previous two seasons. Consider that this was when Colorado was in the bottom of the league’s barrel and the Hawks were (are) a perennial Stanley Cup contender. This year, Semyon Varlamov is a perfect 4-0 against Chicago posting a remarkable 0.960 save percentage and 1.59 goals against average. Chicago’s fast tempo puck possession game is something that coach Patrick Roy has tried to mimic with similar high end talent up front on the Avalanche. The result is exciting, fast paced hockey between the two sides. It could very well turn out to be the most exciting first round match up this season.
[Keep Gold Coast in mind for your Blackhawks tickets]
The Avalanche will win because..
They will earn home ice advantage and Varlamov will continue to be the team’s MVP. If there is a time to beat the power house Blackhawks, it’s in the first round. Sandwiched between their two Stanley Cup victories in the last four seasons were two first round exits to the Vancouver Canucks and Phoenix Coyotes. Mind you, these were both incredibly hard fought series that could have gone either way. After jumping out to a 3-0 series lead Vancouver held on to win in overtime of game 7 and went on to be within of one win of hockey’s holy grail. The Coyotes won in 6 games, but the first five games of the series went to overtime. Thanks to brilliant (and I mean, other worldly) goaltending from Mike Smith and a couple of overtime “stinkers” (see one below) from Corey Crawford the ‘Yotes were able to pull off the upset.
The moral of the story? The key to success against the Hawks is to jump out to an early lead and sink them before they get their playoff legs under them. If the Avs win, it will be in 5 games or less. This is where home ice advantage looms large. The enthusiasm of the home crowd will be essential to invigorate the young legs of the Avalanche and get them off to a hot start.
The Blackhawks will win because..
They are the defending champions, and odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup. That may sound like a cop-out, but there is no denying its truth. Their entire core has been through this for the past five seasons, and one always has to be wary of the Jonathon Toews factor. No matter where they finish in the standings or what the season series is between the clubs, the Blackhawks are always a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. The franchise is the closest thing that exists to a dynasty in this era of the NHL and with Toews and Kane not even in the prime of their careers, they aren’t going anywhere soon. Reports also suggest that Teuvo Teravainen will be making his Blackhawks debut this postseason – because they need more fire power up front. Should the series extend beyond 5 games, Chicago’s poise under pressure will win out and bury the Avalanche.
The Blackhawks will win in six extremely close games. Colorado will put up a great fight and surprise a lot of people, but in the end the Hawks’ experience and talent will win out. They will expose Colorado’s inexperienced defense and the Avs offense will not be able to keep up. I would not be surprised to see this go to game 7, as it is primed to be one of the most high flying and exciting series of the 2014 playoffs.
The Blue(s) Place
With a solid (but not insurmountable) lead on both the Blackhawks and Avalanche in the Central Division, a Blues – Avalanche first round match up is less likely than that outlined above. However, if the Avalanche do manage to overcome the Blackhawks there is a good chance they will meet the Blues in round two barring a massive upset; so the analysis is still valid. Although they do not have the same playoff pedigree as the Blackhawks, the Blues provide a much tougher match up for the Avalanche. St. Louis is the only Western Conference team to be in top three in the league in both goals for per game and goals against per game. The Avalanche have also struggled against the Blues this season, losing all three games. They are also one of the few teams that have made Varlamov look human this year, putting up more than 3 goals in each contest. The Blues physicality and tight checking defense is not a style suited to the Avs’ up tempo offensive game. Add this to the fact that they now have Ryan Miller between the pipes and the Blues look like a team the Avs will want to avoid at all costs.
The Avalanche will win because…
Their high end forwards will be difference makers. If there is one thing the Blues lack, it is an offensive game breaker. Someone that, despite the flow of the game, can create offense at any moment. It has been their downfall in series against the Los Angeles Kings in recent years. Duchene, MacKinnon, and even Landeskog are these kind of dynamic players that can use their speed and talent to score goals no matter how tight the game. This proved true in their most recent matchup, when the Blues squeaked out a 2-1 win in a game where the Avalanche piled up the chances but failed to convert.
The Blues’ lack of experience could also be an advantage to the Avalanche, especially if the series stretches to six or more games. Colorado’s youngsters should have more confidence facing the likes of Backes, Oshie and Steen in elimination games than they would against Toews, Kane, Hossa and company.
The Blues will win because…
They are the most well rounded team in the league. Though they lack high end scoring, they get contributions from their entire lineup, most notably from their blue line. The addition of Ryan Miller to what is arguably the league’s best defense is enough to strike fear in any opponent. There is a reason they are in contention for the President’s Trophy. The physicality of the Blues forwards will be too much for the relatively small defense of the Avalanche, and the elite talent of Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and company on the blue line will help Ryan Miller keep the Avs’ offense in check.
The Blues will win in 5 or 6. Like the Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis is a team designed to succeed in the playoffs. They play a playoff style of hockey and it will allow them to wear their opposition down over a seven game series. If the Blackhawks do not repeat as champions, the St. Louis Blues are my pick to take home the Cup this postseason.
It is not all hopeless..
The bad news is the playoff picture looks bleak no matter who the Avs meet in the first round – but those are the breaks when you are a part of the best division in hockey. The good news is that playoffs are just the cherry on top of this birthday cake of a season for the Avalanche. After years of suffering through mediocrity and dwelling in the league basement, the franchise is once again in the league’s upper echelon thanks to the familiar faces of Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy. Whatever happens this year, the Avalanche better get used to playing one of these two teams in the first round for at least the next eight seasons. Either that, or win hockey’s toughest division and wait until round two to face one of these power houses. Sounds easy enough, right? At least the Avalanche can imagine.. (for your viewing pleasure)