If you like a Stanley Cup favorite doing battle against a former Stanley Cup victor, then this series is for you.
The numbers might state otherwise, but the Colorado Avalanche will have their work cut out for them when they face off against the 2019 Stanley Cup Final-winning St. Louis Blues for a best-of-seven series in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Colorado won the Presidents’ Trophy for a reason, while the other in St. Louis had injuries and inconsistencies plague them for the entirety of the regular season.
Who comes out of this series as the victor, though? Well, let me do my best to give you that answer. Here is my preview for the West Division bout.
If you are talking about who scores goals loudly and often, then you must mention the Avalanche. After all, the team’s 197 goals scored and 3.52 goals per game both ranked first in the entire NHL. Colorado’s top line in Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen led the team in points (52, 65 and 66, respectively). Supplementary scoring skaters in Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi and Brandon Saad only diversified an already-flexible line assembly. And remember, I have not even mentioned the defensive unit (more on that below).
St. Louis relies on the steady tandem of David Perron and Ryan O’Reilly to score their goals, as both combined for 43 goals and 112 points. While the team’s goal totals are not sub-par by any stretch of the mean (their 167 total goals and 2.98 goals per game both ranked 13th), they will go into the postseason with an injury bug – Vladimir Tarasenko (lower-body injury) will likely be a question mark as the series grinds onward, while Perron (COVID-19) will also be a mystery. On the flip side, Colorado seems to be getting healthier and healthier, as the big stars (including MacKinnon) practiced fully, as did the supplementary shooters including Saad, who missed the previous month with a lower-body injury. Colorado had the advantage regardless of health, but this news might make it much more lopsided in their favor.
Let’s just list off a few Avalanche defenders, shall we? Devon Toews. Ryan Graves. Cale Makar. Bowen Byram. This list could go on and on, but just remember this – Colorado has the depth, youth, scoring and defensive capabilities in their blue-line pairings. Now, Colorado’s defensive core might not check as extremely as other teams, but they can score and do just enough to mitigate any offensive momentum from festering into something dangerous. Even the forwards can play a little defense – Rantanen led the entire NHL in plus-minus (+30). Toews, meanwhile, was tied for second (+29).
St. Louis brings a more traditional checking defense (and team, for that matter) to the ice, as the likes of Justin Faulk, Robert Bortuzzo and Co. are not intimidated to roll up their sleeves and get down and dirty. While health might put the Blues at a bit of a disadvantage, their experience might give the unit an intangible advantage over the younger and greener Colorado defense.
Two words. Philipp. Grubauer. The 29-year-old netminder has been a sensation for Colorado this season, as his seven shutouts are the most in a single season for a Colorado/Quebec goaltender since 2009-10, when Craig Anderson also tallied seven to his name. The career year did not end there for the former Washington Capital – his 1.95 Goals Against Average (GAA) ranked first among all 32 goaltenders to start a minimum of 25 games, while his .922 Save Percentage (Sv%) ranked sixth. Jordan Binnington was certainly decent, but nowhere close to the prominence of his opponent in Grubauer – his 2.65 GAA and .910 Sv% both ranked 15th. Even still, the production was a far-cry from the 27-year-old’s 2018-19 season.
If this is between Grubauer and Binnington, then the former takes the cake. However, if a not-so-fortunate injury plagues Grubauer, who gets the edge here might be more open to interpretation (with all due respect to Jonas Johansson, Devan Dubnyk and Co., of course). Health-permitting, Colorado takes it. Simple as that.
It is a shame health might play a factor into how this series plays out. If both teams were at 100%, this could easily go six or seven. However, as the active rosters look right now, Colorado simply possesses more depth, speed and scoring prowess to already supplement a steady goaltending season from Grubauer. St. Louis should be able to steal a game, but that might be it. Colorado is a Stanley Cup favorite for a reason, and it will show.
Prediction: Avalanche in Five