When the final whistle blew on February 12, the Colorado Avalanche were in serious trouble. They had just lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs at home and were mired in an eight-game losing streak, which had already included overtime losses in a three-game stretch. To add insult to injury, it was the first time this season that the Avs’ regulation losses eclipsed their wins.
As bleak as the Avs’ playoff picture looked then, they would go 16-7-3 the rest of the way and nab the Western Conference’s final Wild Card spot—and a date with the top-seeded Calgary Flames in the playoffs. Colorado didn’t fare well against the Flames this season, finishing with an 0-2-1 record, and it would be unwise to let expectations get too high: Top seeds are 26-6 against eight-seeds in the playoffs since 2001, per the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. But for fans in need of reasons to hope, Colorado is coming into the playoffs on a serious hot streak.
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Here are a few things to look for as the Avs launch their second-straight playoff campaign.
Series Mindset: Offense Reigns
Prepare for an offensive-centered series—lots of goals, that is. The matchup features five players within the NHL’s top 30 in scoring, but that’s only part of the reason why we should expect offensive fireworks. Save a late-season hot streak from the Avs’ Philipp Grubauer, none of either team’s goaltenders have been outstanding this season. In fact, according to Hockey-Reference, multiple teams have three goalies—three!—with a better save percentage than Calgary’s top guy, David Rittich. The Avs are poised to exploit that weakness well, as nobody in the NHL puts up more shots than Colorado’s points leader, Nathan MacKinnon.
For Colorado, veteran Semyon Varlamov shouldn’t sniff the goal as long as Grubauer is available. The latter took over the regular starting job toward the end of season and has limited opponents’ scoring outbursts in a way that Varlamov hasn’t. His top-notch performance toward the end of the Avs’ playoff-clinching win against the Winnipeg Jets demonstrated once again that he might not be an All-Star, but he has what it takes to keep Colorado within striking distance in tight games.
Difference Maker: High Danger Scoring Chances
One of many key areas in which the Flames excel could be perhaps the biggest problem for the Avs. Calgary converts over 17 percent of its high danger scoring changes, which (see this helpful explanation from Forever Blueshirts) means the Flames are highly efficient when shooting from a spot on the ice that has a good angle or proximity to the net.
Essentially, when the Flames get quality chances to score, they convert at a rate much higher than league average—and they’ve been doing it all season. That kind of efficiency should strike fear into the hearts of Avs fans, and doesn’t bode well for Colorado’s hopes to continue playing hockey deep into the spring.
Avs X-Factor: Mikko Rantanen
The Avs can’t pull off a major first-round upset without the help of the recently injured Mikko Rantanen, who finished an abbreviated season with 87 points. Luckily, the right winger should be available for the entire playoffs, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll be at tip-top form following the significant “upper body injury” he sustained during a game on March 21.
To be fair, the Avs did finish 5-1-2 following Rantanen’s injury, so they’re clearly capable of performing without him. But they will need to create goals throughout this series to match up against hockey’s second-highest scoring offense, and Rantanen has done that better than all but 16 people in the NHL this year. Any thought of advancing simply isn’t in play without Rantanen at his best.
Flames X-Factor: Johnny Gaudreau
Calgary’s goals leader Johnny Gaudreau is a menace. Gaudreau matched Colorado’s MacKinnon with 99 points this season, and ranked in the NHL’s top 20 in goals, assists, goals created, and game-winning goals. He ended the season on an assists rampage, with six in his final six games.
Gaudreau’s ability to create comes through in his team’s balanced scoring, as four of his teammates have notched 20-plus goals this season. Creating a scheme to stop Gaudreau could prove problematic—focusing on him too much could provide open lanes for his more-than-capable teammates to take over.