Avalanche vs. Golden Knights: 5 things to know about their Second Round series

Avalanche Golden Knights
Getty

The Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs began on Saturday. Today, we preview the matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights.

AVALANCHE VS. GOLDEN KNIGHTSseries livestream link

Game 1: Sun. May 30: Golden Knights at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 2: Wed. June 2: Golden Knights at Avalanche, 10 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 3: Fri. June 4: Avalanche at Golden Knights, 10 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 4: Sun. June 6: Avalanche at Golden Knights, 8:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
*Game 5: Tues. June 8: Golden Knights at Avalanche TBD
*Game 6: Thurs. June 10: Avalanche at Golden Knights TBD
*Game 7: Sat. June 12: Golden Knights at Avalanche TBD

1. The two best teams in the league

Everybody was hoping for this matchup in the Western Conference Final a year ago, but the Stars ruined those plans when they beat Colorado in the Second round.

Less than a year later we get this dream matchup, and it is hard to argue against these two being the two best teams in the league this season.

Vegas finished tied for the most points in the league (82), with Colorado winning the Presidents’ Trophy by tiebreaker.

They were first and second in the league in goal differential (Vegas in first at plus-67; Colorado in second at plus-64) and were in the top-three in both goals for and goals against. Add in dominant underlying numbers and shot metrics, as well as deep rosters with no weaknesses and it is as good of a matchup as you could see this postseason. The winner of this series will almost certainly be the top Stanley Cup contender and favorite.

2. Colorado’s defense is what separates it from everybody else

When you think of the Avalanche you almost certainly think of Nathan MacKinnon and that top line that also features Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog.

They are phenomenal, dominant, young, and a big part of what separates the Avalanche from every other team in the league.

Cale Makar should be a Norris Trophy finalist this season, Samuel Girard is not far behind him, and Devon Toews has been a steal of an acquisition from the New York Islanders this past offseason. That trio, along with players like Bowen Byram, Conor Timmins, Ryan Graves, and a healthy Erik Johnson gives the Avalanche a defense that should be the envy of the rest of the league. Not only because of their ability, but also because of the ages of most of those players.

During the regular season the Avalanche finished third in the league in goals against, and were the absolute best team at suppressing shot attempts, shots on goal, scoring chances, high-danger scoring chances, and expected goals against (via Natural Stat Trick).

They can outscore anybody. They are also equally dominant on the other end of the rink.

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

3. Colorado has the star power advantage at forward, but will it get Nazem Kadri back sooner that expected?

While these are the two best teams in the league, one of them does have a slightly more impressive roster on paper. That team is Colorado.

With MacKinnon, Rantanen, Landeskog, and Makar the Avalanche have four game-changers in their lineup. Players that can take over a game and a series if they get hot and go on a roll.

The big question here is whether or not this group will be at full strength during the series as they await for the appeal decision on Nazem Kadri’s suspension. He was suspended for eight games for an illegal check to the head of Blues defenseman Justin Faulk in the First Round. He has already served two games and, unless it gets reduced on his appeal, will not be available until a potential Game 7 of the series.

For as good as Vegas is, they do not really have that sort of talent. Marc-Andre Fleury can be that play in goal, and Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty are both outstanding players, but they do not have a MacKinnon, or a bonafide top-line center, or player as quite as impactful as Makar on defense. It is also a team that has struggled to score goals come playoff time, and especially when they have an opportunity to close out a series. That has not hurt them against teams like Vancouver or Minnesota the past two years. It might become a problem against a team like Colorado that is capable of lighting the scoreboard in any game.

4. Vegas has the goaltending advantage

But one thing that Vegas does have is a a goaltending edge.

Philipp Grubauer has been outstanding this season, but goaltending is probably the one position you could look at on this roster with even a little bit of concern. Especially given the lack of depth behind Grubauer. If he struggles or gets injured the Avalanche do not have any great options behind him. They tried to address that at the trade deadline with Devan Dubnyk, but he is not the player he was just a few years ago. The Golden Knights, meanwhile, have two high level starting goalies on their roster in Fleury and Robin Lehner.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2021 Second Round schedule, TV info]

Fleury has been a great redemption story this year after it looked like his time with the Golden Knights was running out. He lost his starting job in the playoffs a year ago, while the Vegas re-signed Robin Lehner to a huge long-term contract presumably with the intent of leaning on him. But an injury to Lehner early in the season opened the door for Fleury to step back in, and he took advantage of the opportunity.

There is a good chance he will be a Vezina Trophy finalist for the first time in his career this season, and he has been outstanding in the playoffs. They also still have Lehner lurking as a backup if they need him. It is a great position for a team to be in come playoff time given how much this position can swing a season or a playoff series.

5. Prediction: Avalanche in 7 games

This is not going to be a short series. The two teams split the regular season meetings and both have the ability to win it all. This is about as evenly matched as a series can get, and this would have made an amazing semifinals matchup in a normal playoff year. The Golden Knights have the goaltending, the Avalanche have the star power, both teams are loaded from top-to-bottom. Having said that, the Avalanche just seem to be playing at an entirely different level than everybody else this season and especially so far in the playoffs. They take a close, hard fought series in seven games.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Scroll Down For:

    Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
    1 Comment

    BOSTON – The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games on Monday night.

    The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

    Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

    In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

    They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

    Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

    Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

    Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

    “Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

    Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

    “This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

    The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

    Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

    “This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

    Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

    Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

    Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

    “We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

    Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

    TRIBUTE

    The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

    The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

    “It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

    FOR THE RECORD

    Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

    EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

    The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

    UP NEXT

    Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers on Wednesday.

    Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday.

    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

    kris letang
    Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
    1 Comment

    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

    Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
    3 Comments

    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

    Kris Letang Penguins
    Getty Images
    1 Comment

    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”