Avalanche defense, not scoring, has been their calling card

NBC’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Saturday’s matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues. Avalanche-Blues stream coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Avalanche clinched a postseason berth for the fourth consecutive season with their 4-2 win over St. Louis Thursday. They did it without their starting goalie, leading scorer and another key forward.

The Avs had missed eight days dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak, the second time this season they had to pause. They still ended up just the second squad to clinch a playoff seed, along with divisional foe Vegas, while playing without Philipp Grubauer, Mikko Rantanen, and Joonas Donskoi. All three players remain on the NHL COVID-19 protocol list.

Colorado has never been at risk of missing the playoffs or really even falling out of one of the West Division’s top two seeds. They’ve stayed consistent essentially all season, even when the season itself hasn’t been so consistent, with pauses and illness and everything else that comes from trying to play sports in 2021.

Yet, the Avalanche, on the ice, have never dropped in the standings further than second. They’ve been the epitome of not only consistency, but dominance.

One reason why might be their defense.

Colorado is known for its prolific offense, behind Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and the entire cast such as  Donskoi and a 14-goal push from Andre Burakovsky. On defense, though, they’ve shined, even with goalie injuries and inconsistencies.

[AVALANCHE-BLUES COVERAGE BEGINS AT 3 P.M. ET – NBC]

At five-on-five, the Avalanche has outscored opponents 104-67, via Natural Stat Trick. That’s the best differential in the league.

Cale Makar, in just his second full season, is a favorite to be at least a Norris Trophy finalist. It’s been more than just the stellar UMass alum who has starred, though. Samuel Girard, like Makar, has 30-plus points, making the Avs the only team in the league with two defenders at that mark.

Devon Toews, acquired in the offseason via the Islanders, has been a tremendous addition. When he plays with Makar, Colorado has an even-strength goals differential of plus-11.

That’s not the only combo head coach Jared Bednar has tested out with success either. Toews and Girard have a 154-99 edge on shots at even strength. At times, Ryan Graves has also skated with Toews to a plus-goals differential.

Behind the blue liners, Grubauer has been one of the best goaltenders in the league all season. For goalies with at least 1,000 minutes played — essentially, a consistent starter — Grubauer’s high-danger save percentage of .855 is the fourth best in the league.

Back to the defense itself, Girard has had a breakout sort of season working with Makar and Toews. He leads the NHL in Corsi for percentage for a defenseman with at least 500 minutes at 60.61 — the two immediately trailing him are Toews (59.50) and Makar (58.68). Graves, at 57.11, is also in the top 10.

When the Avalanche hit the postseason, a lot will be made about their scorers, and it should. Rantanen has become one of the best scorers in the league. MacKinnon is a perennial Hart Trophy candidate. They are going to outscore most teams they play.

The defense, though, should not be overlooked, because it’s why they are as dominant as they are. Colorado will score an Avalanche of goals but they also aren’t going to allow many chances for anyone else to.

Marisa Ingemi is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Ingemi.

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