The Colorado Avalanche enter tonight’s final regular season game against the St. Louis Blues fighting for a playoff spot. If the Avalanche find a way to win to win in regulation, they will move onto the postseason to face the Nashville Predators. If the game goes into overtime, the St. Louis Blues will advance to the postseason. While the postseason implications are fairly straightforward, the real questions surround which Colorado Avalanche team will show up tonight and what are the keys to the game’s outcome?
Which Nathan MacKinnon Will Play Tonight?
On the surface, the question seems almost heretical. MacKinnon ranks 5th among all NHL scorers, having racked up 95 points in at least five fewer games than any of the players above him. His 11 game winning goals places him second in the NHL this year, one goal behind Brayden Point. MacKinnon currently averages 1.30 points per game, second only to Connor McDavid who owns a 1.31 points per game average. His name circles in discussions for the Hart Trophy. No one can question his rise to elite status this season.
But that’s not the whole story.
In the past nine games, Nathan MacKinnon hasn’t scored a goal. Prior to his scoring drought, MacKinnon led the league in scoring, averaging 1.39 points per game. However, in the past five games, he’s only scored three assists. He’s had an incredibly impressive season and there’s no arguing the point. How many players in contention for a scoring title can go cold for nine games, miss eight games to injury and still be in the conversation? Yet, the fact remains, as the Avalanche pushed through the final legs of the season battling for a playoff spot, MacKinnon has not been a dominant scoring presence. And the team record of 3-5-1 indicates how much MacKinnon’s drop off impacts the team record.
Whether Nathan MacKinnon can re-discover his scoring touch could determine whether the Avalanche participate in the postseason or watch from the sidelines.
Can the Colorado Avalanche Defensive Corps Handle the Pressure?
The Avalanche have struggled with injuries to their blue line throughout the second half of the season. Coach Bednar has rotated defensive pairings so much that the changeups have earned the nickname ‘the Bednar blender’.
Current manifestations of the defensive roster include 19 year old rookie Sam Girard who was acquired by trade, AHL veteran David Warsofsky, trade deadline acquisition Mark Alt, and October waiver wire addition Patrik Nemeth. The only players returning from last year’s defensive corps currently playing for the team are Tyson Barrie, Nikita Zadorov along with Mark Barberio, who just returned from missing 33 games due to injury.
Bednar has managed to cobble together a gritty defensive corps while defensive coach Nolan Pratt implemented more successful defensive strategies than last year. The blueline has improved despite the constant rotation of players. The key may be whether Tyson Barrie can bring his best play to the game. As the resident veteran of the defensive corps, his composure could well dictate the course of the evening.
Will the “Next Man Up” Mentality be Enough to Lift the Avalanche into the Playoffs?
Colorado has suffered a significant amount of injuries for the youngest team in the NHL. With 291 man games lost, the team has been forced to call upon rookies to carry more of the load as well as drain their AHL affiliate – the San Antonio Rampage – of talent. A large number of their injuries impacted their veterans, which has made the success of the team this year even more impressive.
Jonathan Bernier will be starting in net tonight. The back-up goaltender came back from two concussions and an infection to his glove hand. He stepped up to cover for the Avalanche after starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov was injured after a Chicago Blackhawks player crashed the net. The Avalanche went five players deep in their goaltender pool to ice a back-up for the games at one point.
The defensive corps also suffered it’s share of injuries. Top defenseman Erik Johnson was ruled out for the next five weeks after suffering an injury in the same Blackhawks game as Varlamov. He had only recently returned to lineup from a previous injury which caused him to miss nearly a month of play heading into March. Defenseman Mark Barberio missed 33 straight games and played his first game back in Colorado’s last game (a loss to the San Jose Sharks). Rookie defenseman Anton Lindholm missed a slew of games due to myriad injuries including a broken jaw and an injured knee. And Tyson Barrie missed most of January.
The forward corps has not been without their share of injuries, either. Veteran scoring wing Sven Andrighetto missed January and February, veteran Colin Wilson nursed varying injuries off and on throughout the year, rookie Tyson Jost missed the first month of the season while fellow rookie J.T. Compher also missed a month’s worth of play. Even Nathan MacKinnon missed three weeks.
There is not a single player on the Avalanche that played the whole season.
Colorado had to adopt the ‘next man up’ mentality. And it has served them well. The rookies have developed valuable ice time in important matchups and the team has developed a unity of purpose and cohesiveness lacking in previous seasons. However, losing two crucial pieces in Johnson and Varlamov down the stretch, has added one more layer to the tension. The rookies and secondary scoring could well determine the outcome of the game.
Tonight’s matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and the St. Louis Blues will determine a playoff spot. In large part, whether the Avalanche will advance depends on which team shows up. Will the Nathan MacKinnon scoring machine power his team forward? Will the defensive corps find a winning combination? Will the rookies be able to competently fill the void left by more experienced players?
Hockey was made for night’s like this – everything on the line, battling for the playoffs. For the Avalanche, though, just taking the ice in contention tonight is a victory. They overcame a dismal 48 point season last year and a slew of unfortunate and ill-timed injuries this year to join the postseason conversation. Tonight – Colorado is playing with house money. And regardless of outcome, they can skate way with heads held high. They have already won something valuable – respect.