NHL West Division First Round Playoff Preview: St. Louis Blues versus the Colorado Avalanche.
Colorado finished tied with Vegas for the most points in the NHL at 82. The Avalanche clinched the tie-breaker to seize the top seed in the divisional playoffs with their 2-1 victory in Las Vegas in the second to last game in the regular season last week. That win also allowed the organization to claim the President’s Trophy for the league's best record.
Jared Bednar’s team was on pace for more than 110 points had this been a full season. His group led the NHL in both net goal differential and expected goals net differential. General manager Joe Sakic heads one of the more analytically-driven organizations in the league. Colorado has generated the best five-on-five analytics for any team since the 2007-08 season.
The Avalanche made noise two years ago after upsetting the top-seeded Calgary Flames in the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs. With big expectations last season, they finished second in the conference before the stoppage of play. After defeating Arizona in the opening round of the playoffs, Colorado lost in the second round to a Dallas team that would eventually take Tampa Bay to six games in the Stanley Cup finals.
Colorado is blessed with one of the elite young talents in the game in Nathan MacKinnon. The top-line center scored 20 goals and added 45 assists in 48 games. He is joined on the Avalanche top line by Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, who contributed another 52 and 66 points, respectively. Last year’s Calder Trophy winner, Cale Makar tied with Rantanen with 36 assists in his 44 games while becoming one of the top defensemen in the league.
Philipp Grubauer posted a 30-9-1 record this season after his injury left a big hole between the crease during last year’s playoffs. He has a 1.95 goals-against-average and a .922 save percentage. He was not as effective down the stretch with a .908 save percentage in his last ten games, yet he stopped 36 of 37 shots from Golden Knights last week in what was the biggest game of the regular season.
Sakic traded for San Jose goaltender Devan Dubnyk at the trade deadline, given the season-ending injury to backup Pavel Francouz. He also added size by picking up center Carl Soderberg and defenseman Patrick Nemeth to help in a possible showdown with Vegas in the next round.
Colorado must first dispose of a St. Louis team that is two years removed from lifting the Stanley Cup trophy. The Blues’ defense of their title was going well even without their star right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, who was battling a shoulder injury. They had the best record in the Western Conference before the stoppage of play. However, Craig Berube’s team was swept in their three-round robin games once play resumed in the summer before getting upset in the first round by Vancouver.
General manager Doug Armstrong lost captain Alex Pietrangelo in the offseason when he signed with Vegas. He adapted by signing Torey Krug from Boston to a seven-year, $45.5 million deal to take the open spot on the blue line. Armstrong also brought in forward Mike Hoffman from Florida. Former Selke and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Ryan O’Reilly was named the new captain.
The group struggled in a top-heavy realigned West Division before winning eight of their last twelve games to claim the final spot in the divisional playoffs with a 27-20-9 record and 63 points. After multiple shoulder surgeries, Tarasenko has returned to the ice to score four goals and assist on another ten goals in 24 games. O’Reilly leads the team with 24 goals and 30 assists. Krug has 30 assists while anchoring the power play. Jordan Binnington rebounded from a nightmare postseason with a 2.65 goals-against-average and a .910 save percentage. He has a .921 save percentage in his 16 games.
The Blues hope their playoff experience and physical brand of hockey will neutralize a talented Avalanche team that has yet to reach a Western Conference final in the MacKinnon era. Colorado won five of the eight regular-season meetings, outscoring them by a 26-21 margin. An 8-0 victory on January 15th skews those numbers. St. Louis won the final two games in late April without having to face Grubauer in goal.
BetAnySports lists Colorado as a -320 money line favorite with the total set at 5.5 for the opening game of this series on Monday. The NBC Sports Network broadcasts the game at 10 PM ET.
Prediction: Colorado Avalanche win series 4 games to 0