The Colorado Avalanche have, to this point, met all of the expectations that existed for them at the start of the 2020-21 season.
With a loaded roster led by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Cale Makar, and Nazem Kadri, the Avalanche were considered one of the league’s best teams and one of the most popular Stanley Cup picks. Then they went out and won the Presidents’ Trophy with the league’s best record and dominated in pretty much every phase of the game.
Offense, defense, special teams, and even excellent goaltending when Philipp Grubauer is in the lineup.
They are the real deal, and the team most of us expected them to be.
Their postseason run begins on Tuesday night with a First Round matchup against a St. Louis Blues that is still somewhat of a mystery this season.
Are they still a contender? Or are they starting to inch away from that elite status?
They are just two years removed from a championship with a lot of the same core still in place, including one of the game’s best all-around players in Ryan O'Reilly. But they have also not consistently played at that level over the past two years. Injuries really decimated them earlier in the year, and they are still dealing with a little bit of that going into the playoffs, as well as the departure of long-time captain Alex Pietrangelo.
After a miserable month of March (and most of April) that nearly knocked them out of the playoff race, the Blues did finish strong down the stretch with an 8-1-3 mark over their final 12 games to clinch their spot. Their reward is a First Round matchup against the league’s best team.
AVALANCHE VS. BLUES – series livestream link
Monday, May 17: Blues at Avalanche, 10 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Wednesday, May 19: Blues at Avalanche, 10:30 p.m. ET (CNBC)
Friday, May 21: Avalanche at Blues, 9:30 p.m. ET (USA Network)
Sunday, May 23: Avalanche at Blues TBD
*Tuesday, May 25: Blues at Avalanche TBD
*Thursday, May 27: Avalanche at Blues TBD
*Saturday, May 29: Blues at Avalanche TBD
Avalanche – Blues Storylines
Colorado’s defense is the real deal
The thing that makes the Avalanche so scary is not just the fact they have a trio of All-Stars on their top line and a dangerous group of secondary players behind them. It is not just the fact they have the best offense in the league that can be a matchup nightmare for any defense and any goalie.
What makes them so scary is that they also have a defense that can lock down any team in the league. And they are all young and either in the prime of their careers right now, or just entering the prime of their careers. Cale Makar and Sam Girard are legitimate Norris Trophy contenders this season, Devon Toews is not far behind, and Bowen Byram is a potential star in his own right. Add in players like Ryan Graves and Connor Timmins and the defense is loaded. During the regular season no team in the league was better at preventing shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances, and no team was even close to them. They can beat you in any manner.
The Blues defense without Alex Pietrangelo
You have to go all the way back to 2008 to find the last time the Blues played a playoff game without having Pietrangelo on the roster. Their long-time captain and top defender left via free agency this past offseason to join the Vegas Golden Knights, leaving a pretty big void on the ice and in the locker room. They attempted to fill it by signing Torey Krug in free agency, and while Krug has been fine, he has not really been a difference-maker either.
The Blues are also not quite the same team defensively that they have been the past couple of years. They give up more shot attempts, more shots, more chances, and more goals. They finished the regular season 19th in goals against, making it the first time since 2010-11 that they have finished lower than 15th. It is only the second time since then that they have finished outside of the top-10.
Which Jordan Binnington will the Blues get?
Binnington’s career has been all over the map so far. He legitimately helped save their championship season in 2018-19 and was a crucial part of bringing St. Louis its first Stanley Cup.
He regressed a little during the regular season in year two, had a meltdown in the playoffs that year, and then has been a little of both in 2020-21. Despite that, the Blues still felt confident enough in him to give him a massive contract extension this season. He is obviously their guy, especially with no reliable backup behind him. But his play has been so hit-and-miss this season that it’s hard to know what to expect going into the series. Considering the overall regression of the Blues’ defense, combined with the fact Colorado’s offense is as good as it gets, the good version of Binnington showing up is going to be crucial.
Championship expectations for Colorado
The Avalanche have reached the point in their development as a team that they are going to be measured by how far they go in the playoffs and how close they get to a Stanley Cup.
Just making the playoffs will not be enough. Winning one round will not be seen as a success. They are now in the meaty part of their development window where the Stanley Cup pressure starts to mount and the target is going to be on them. They have been the most hyped team in the league from the start of the season, they finished with the league’s best record, they have All-Star talent all over the roster, and the front office has gone all in on trying to win it all right now.
One big question for Colorado: Will the goaltending hold out?
This is the big X-factor and maybe the only question mark for Colorado going into the playoffs. The forwards and defense are both great, but the health and success of Grubauer will probably determine how far the Avalanche are able to go. Overall, Grubauer has had a strong season and posted great numbers. But he missed a couple of weeks while on the COVID list and his performance has been a little more inconsistent in the second half. If he struggles, or would happen to get injured, the Avalanche do not have any reliable depth behind him. Anytime you have a team like the Avalanche that is stacked like this it always comes down to whether or not the goaltending can get the job done. That is the one position where a single player can significantly alter the course of a series and season. It is also the one position that you might look at in Colorado with a hint of concern.
One big question for St. Louis: What can the Blues expect from Vladimir Tarasenko?
Including last year’s postseason Tarasenko has played just 34 games over the past two years for the Blues.
Only 24 of those games have been this season, and only one of them has come since April 28. When he has played, he has not been the same dynamic player that he has been throughout his career. While the Blues have a very good roster, Tarasenko is one of the few players that can break a game open offensively when he is healthy and at his best. They could use a lot of that in this series against a Colorado team that should not have any trouble filling the net. Will Tarasenko be available at the start? And if he is, what can he give them?
Prediction: Avalanche in 5
The Avalanche simply look like a buzzsaw right now going into the playoffs. They have one of the league’s best lines, great scoring depth, the best defense in the league, they went 5-3-0 against the Blues during the regular season, and are 26-6-3 over their past 35 games. Just seems like it would be a pretty significant upset if the Blues matched that in a best-of-seven series right now.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.