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 KNIGHTS – series 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.