Why the Avalanche are the NHL’s postseason juggernaut

NHL News

The Colorado Avalanche enter the second round of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs as a heavy favorite to win the Western Conference and eventually hoist the chalice for the first time since 2001.

Some call them dominant, a juggernaut or, in popular hockey parlance, a “wagon.” Whatever the label, the Avalanche have earned it, with a star-studded roster, a 119-point regular season and the only sweep of the first round, against the Nashville Predators.

“They’re a great team, Colorado, we all know that. They’ve got a lot of high-end players,” said St. Louis Blues coach Craig Berube, whose team opens their series against the Avalanche on Tuesday night. “You’re going to have to do a lot of things right, and you’re going to have to be real disciplined.”

Easier said than done. After speaking to opponents, scouts and analysts, here are some of the reasons why the Avalanche are this postseason’s steamroller — and why many are wondering if there’s any way to stop them.

Nathan MacKinnon’s status as one of the NHL’s most dominant players is well-established. Since 2017-18, he’s third in the league in points (442) behind Edmonton’s dynamic duo of Connor McDavid (549) and Leon Draisaitl (479), and tied with Draisaitl for third in points per-game-average (1.31). He’s among the league’s best skaters, and his ability to shoot while in stride is elite.

He’s Nathan MacKinnon. He’s quite good. But he doesn’t do it alone.

Mikko Rantanen’s first full NHL season was 2016-17. Since then, he and MacKinnon have played 377 regular-season games and 4,501 minutes together at 5-on-5. In that time, their lines have outscored opponents 264-193 at even strength. Since 2017-2018, Rantanen has the 12th highest points-per-game average in the NHL (1.14). Their line was a plus-20 in goal differential this season.

“They feed off that line, because you almost bank on that line getting [a goal] every night,” said one NHL veteran.

The best version of that line through the years has featured the physicality of winger Gabriel Landeskog. This season has seen MacKinnon and Rantanen play with Valeri Nichushkin, who was slotted with them during the first round, and Andre Burakovsky as well. The third component can change because the dynamic nature of the MacKinnon and Rantanen duo powers it.

“I think that top line is dominant,” said another NHL veteran. “I think there are maybe five lines in the league where you can put two Victor Hedmans out there against them and it wouldn’t matter. They’re still going to create offense. They’re going to get chances. You just have to try and not make it too easy for them.”


The Avalanche needed only four games to win their opening round series against the Predators, but that was enough time for Makar to set an NHL record. He became the first defenseman in NHL history to record at least 10 points in a playoff series lasting four games. But that’s Makar for you: He doesn’t need much time or space to make something happen.

“He’s a game breaker. He’s an unstoppable defenseman,” said one NHL veteran. “There are other defenseman who are productive, but it’s because they’re smart and can make plays. Makar is the kind of player who can get the puck and, in one shift, do it all entirely by himself. He’s that skilled.”

Since 2019-20, Makar ranks 25th among all NHL players in points-per-game average (1.01). He cracks the top 10 in that span in power-play points (75). He already has a Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie in 2019-20, and is favored to add a Norris Trophy to his collection after the season.

The scariest thing about Makar is that for all the offense he generates, he’s not a liability defensively like some of his ilk. Per Stathletes, Makar’s even-strength expected goals differential per game was third among all NHL players this season at +0.38 per game, behind only Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews and Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who played on the NHL’s best goal-scoring team since 1995-96.

“With high-caliber offensive defensemen like Brent Burns or Morgan Rielly, they almost always ‘give up’ something on defense to generate their offense. Makar doesn’t do that at all,” said one NHL analyst.


No room for error

The cliche about “limiting time and space?” Literally invented for the Avalanche. They just don’t need much of either to make an impact.

“They’re really opportunistic,” one Central Division player shared. “There are other teams that probably score more, but [Colorado] doesn’t have to put up like four or five [a game] or score on command or anything [to be effective]. It’s timing, and more that they will [potentially] make you pay for every single mistake, at a higher rate than maybe anyone else we played this year.”

That can be attributed to a number of factors, the least of which is Colorado’s striking depth. Seven players notched more than 20 goals in the regular season. Four skaters had three or more goals in the four-game sweep of Nashville and nine different players total lit the lamp. Colorado’s attack is merciless.

And it’s not just what the Avalanche can generate for themselves. Part of how they create positive opportunities is limiting negative chances against. The lack of odd-man rushes Colorado gave up this season (averaging less than 2.5 per game) was impressive, and their own transition game is so strong that the Avalanche can turn the most innocuous neutral-zone turnover into another soul-crushing advantage.

“People laughed when Darryl [Sutter] made the ‘waste of eight days’ joke,” added the player. “But he just said what a lot of [other guys] were thinking too. How do you beat [Colorado] four times in a short period? You almost want to find out, but then you also want them to keep going since the hockey is so good to watch.”

All that said, the foundation of Colorado’s opportunism is effort. The Avalanche might have enviable talent, but the team’s best performances are defined by work ethic. When Colorado was coasting into the playoffs and collected just one win in seven games to cap off the regular season, it was clear how valuable those good habits are. They were on full display again in the first round dismantling of Nashville, a not-so-subtle reminder of how the Avalanche came to be so dominant.


Sneaky good defense

When a team averaged 3.76 goals per game in the regular season, its defensive acumen can be overlooked. But the Avalanche (fourth in goals) were in a statistical dead heat for seventh in team defense (2.83 goals against per game) this season.

“The one area that I see as under-appreciated is the defensive system they play, and how those offensive players have committed to the defensive side of the puck,” one NHL analyst said.

According to Stathletes, the Avalanche have given up the second-fewest scoring chances per game at even strength (8.89), which was tied with the Calgary Flames and trailed only the Boston Bruins.

One of their greatest attributes defensively is their ability to limit opponents’ time and space inside the neutral zone. In fact, the Avalanche had allowed 2:47 of opponent possession time in the neutral zone per game, which is the second-lowest in the NHL.

If there’s a flaw in their defensive game, it might be on the penalty kill, where the Avalanche were middling, at 79.7% effectiveness. That extended to their series against the Predators, as they killed 10 of 13 power plays. Of course, their own power play terrorizes opposing PKs.


Power play powerhouse

No fancy stats required here; Colorado is a nightmare on the power play.

The Avalanche were seventh overall with the man advantage in the regular season (24%) and elevated that success into another stratosphere early in the postseason. Through that first round against Nashville, the Avalanche were operating at 48.3% with the extra skater. Seven goals on 16 opportunities. Talk about game-changing.

“When we’re playing Colorado, you know they’re going to be agile,” one NHL veteran said. “They’re going to make a lot of quick plays, especially on the power play, which is why it’s so dangerous. They make you pay.”

Now, it’s easy to dismiss that as a one-off wave of achievement that Colorado will never be able to sustain. Maybe not. But it’s out there. Every team the Avalanche face from here on out has to see the gaudiness of MacKinnon and Makar free-wheeling around the offensive zone and wonder how they will next victimize another penalty kill. Even if Colorado doesn’t wind up scoring, just the fear of giving them a power play chance feels like a weapon capable of penetrating the psyche. And in a postseason where the refs have been eager to blow the whistle, that’s a powerful tool to have in your back pocket.

It’s worth noting the Avalanche had a terrific power play in the postseason last year, too (41.4%). But when MacKinnon is on the kind of heater he is (scoring three of the six power-play goals against Nashville, compared to only two in the 10 postseason tilts Colorado was in a season ago) and the chemistry has evolved on that top unit to the level it is now, the difference-making impact for this power play can’t be overstated.


Acquiring parts that fit

Craig Billington. Chris MacFarland. Brad Smith. Wade Klippenstein. Arik Parnass. Brian Willsie. Some of these names sound familiar, others you might be hearing for the first time. But they’re the front office directors and assistant managers for the Avalanche, under general manager Joe Sakic, and they have helped create one of the most successful and efficient player personnel operations in the NHL.

It’s not so much that they help find good players to add to the Avalanche. It’s not totally about finding affordable players to the Avalanche, although that’s admirable. No, what this front office does — and what has the Avs poised for a run at the Stanley Cup — is find good, affordable players that inherently understand how they want to play and have a compatible skills set.

“It’s their ability to find depth players that seem to fit into their system as well as they do,” one NHL analyst said. “Colorado has done a really good job targeting skaters, specifically, who are undervalued in the league.”

Players like Nichushkin, Burakovsky, Nico Sturm and especially Devon Toews. Before them were players like Joonas Donskoi.

“This may not be underappreciated by everyone, but it doesn’t seem like Colorado is talked about this way when one of their biggest strengths has been improving their team through efficient player acquisitions and signings,” said the analyst.

It even extends to who is playing in goal. In the past four seasons, none of their goalies were their own draft picks. When Philipp Grubauer left for Seattle, they were left in the lurch to replace him and anted up for Darcy Kuemper from the Arizona Coyotes. After a few months of adjustment, he ended up being one of the top goaltenders in the league from January onward.

One NHL veteran said he loved what the Avalanche did at the trade deadline.

“Getting a hard to play against third-line guy like Artturi Lehkonen,” he said. “They get Josh Manson, who’s complementary to what they have. They kind of took a page out of Tampa Bay’s book. They didn’t just go out and get the shiny toy.”

(It helps that the shiny toy they were sniffing around only wanted to play for the Panthers, apparently.)


Trusting the process

Colorado is no overnight sensation.

The Avalanche have been a good-to-great regular season team the last three seasons, and failed to advance past the playoffs’ second round.

The outcome in 2021-22 was particularly tough. Colorado’s 82-point campaign earned them a Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team, and they pummeled St. Louis with a four-game, first-round playoff series sweep. To go from that to being upended by Vegas in a second-round series they led 2-0 after Game 2 was, to put it mildly, a disappointment.

And those battle scars run deep.

“When you think you’re a good team, and you think it’s your time, and it doesn’t work out, you carry those feelings into every year after,” said one executive of the Avalanche. “What stands out to me about Colorado isn’t that there’s an obvious chip on the shoulder, but more a bite to how they played in the first round. They were mostly sharp, and when things got a little lazy the whole team seemed to snap back and they got the job done.”

Then there were the trade deadline additions by the Avalanche that only seemed to strengthen the team’s resolve that this could be the year. Lehkonen has been an especially excellent addition to Colorado’s middle-six forwards, a combination of everything that makes the Avalanche great as a whole distilled into one player: Lehkonen is good defensively, he’s effective in tight around the net, can score a big goal or two and forechecks harder than anyone.

Yes, every great team needs its superstars. Colorado knows from experience though that the top tier only takes you so far. The deeper a playoff run, the more assets required in every phase. The Avalanche came up short in that respect before. The pieces were put in place not to see it happen again.


So… can they be beaten?

Finding flaws with the Colorado Avalanche can sometimes veer into the realm of being “overly critical of a fantastic team,” as one NHL analyst put it. But they’re not perfect.

One of the most glaring deficiencies has been on faceoffs, where the Avalanche were 28th in the regular season (47.3%) overall and 30th (46.2) in defensive-zone draws. If they end up going against a good faceoff team in the playoffs, it could cause problems in defensive zone — Colorado is 28th in winning puck battles (48.3%) to regain possession, per Stathletes.

One NHL veteran wondered if maybe their defense can be handled physically.

“Maybe it’s on their back end,” he said. “If you can forecheck against those guys and be physical, you can force some turnovers. But then you still have one of the best defensemen in the world back there to deal with.”

Therein lies the problem for the rest of the playoff field: Colorado’s just really good.

One scout had this to say of the Avalanche:

“If Colorado doesn’t beat themselves, they can go all the way.”

That’s a fair assessment.

What we saw from Colorado late in the regular season was a team appearing to have lost interest in the finer points of its game. There were different personnel in the lineup of course and nothing really to play for, but it did show how the Avalanche are capable of checking out mentally.

That can’t happen for even a game in these playoffs. The top seeds always wear the biggest targets; everyone wants to unseat the Conference champions. It’s one thing to show up the eighth-seed Predators who didn’t even have their starting goaltender Juuse Saros available. It’s another to keep stringing those striking wins together as the stakes get higher.

That being said, what team in the West could stop Colorado from reaching the Stanley Cup Final? It’s not like the Avalanche are a one-line, one-star, one-dimensional success story. All the evidence is there above: Colorado may not be perfect, but the Avalanche are deep in just about every category that matters. If they can stay healthy, and if they stay appropriately engaged with their own strengths, they’ll be hard to upset.

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