Thanks to their overtime 4-3 Game 1 win in the Stanley Cup Final, the Colorado Avalanche are just three wins away from a championship that has seemed inevitable for this core for a couple of years now.
It has been to this point a completely dominant run that has seen them go 13-2 over their first 15 playoff games with only single loss coming in regulation. They have been an absolute machine and overwhelmed every opponent they have faced with their speed, talent, skill, and all-world defense. And they have done that with some pretty significant injuries along the way to defenseman Samuel Girard and center Nazem Kadri.
What makes their postseason dominance even more impressive is they have done it with a pretty significant Achilles Heel in their own net.
[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]
It has not mattered. Yet.
Starting goalie Darcy Kuemper has missed a handful of games this postseason to injury, and when he has played he has not exactly been great. Backup Pavel Francouz has given the Avalanche a similar level of play when he has been thrown into action. Neither one of them has had to steal a game at this point as Colorado has scored at least four goals in 11 of its 15 playoff games, and won eight of them by multiple goals. It is a completely dominant team-wide effort.
As a duo, the Avalanche goalies have managed just an .899 save percentage through the first 15 playoff games. That is way lower than what you would expect to see from a Stanley Cup Finalist. Typically goaltending is one of the driving forces behind teams that go far in the playoffs. It is the ultimate X-Factor game-changer, series-changer, and season-changer. It can mask a lot of flaws if it is great, and it can make you think you have flaws you do not actually have if it is bad. Teams that get sub-.900 goaltending in the playoffs tend to have very short runs and do not make the Stanley Cup Final.
Just consider that in the salary cap era no Stanley Cup finalist prior to this season finished the playoffs with a save percentage lower than .907. Only three of them were under .910 for the playoffs (the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins, the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings, and the 2006-07 Ottawa Senators).
Again, the Avalanche are not only below all of those teams, they are below .900 overall.
It is a testament to how good and dominant the rest of the team is that it has been able to overcome that.
All of the numbers show it.
[Related: Valeri Nichushkin making star turn for Avalanche in Stanley Cup Playoffs]
Colorado’s offense is sensational and gets most of the headlines, but it is the defense that makes this team such a powerhouse. Even without Girard the Avalanche blue line is loaded with superstars (Cale Makar), quiet stars (Devon Toews), rising stars (Bowen Byram), and just plain old rock-solid veterans (Erik Johnson, Josh Manson). By pretty much every defensive metric the Avalanche have the best defensive team in hockey this postseason.
During 5-on-5 play they are allowing just 2.09 expected goals per 60 minutes. Only one other team this postseason (Minnesota) was below 2.20.
They are allowing just 2.34 expected goals per 60 minutes in all situations, by far the best mark in the league. The next lowest team in the playoffs: Pittsburgh at 2.91 expected goals per 60 minutes in all situations.
But only a handful teams have seen a bigger gap in their actuals goals against versus their expected goals against.
Entering Game 2 of the series on Saturday, Colorado is giving up 0.46 more goals than expected this postseason. The only teams that saw a worse difference were Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Nashville. All three of those teams lost in the first round, and two of them (Pittsburgh and Nashville) were playing without their starting goalies. Of the eight teams that saw the biggest negative gap in actual goals versus expected goals, six of them lost in the First Round while another (Calgary) lost in the Second Round in just five games. Then there is Colorado, giving up nearly a half goal more per game than expected and still steamrolling everybody.
You can even look at Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final for an example of this.
[Related: Avalanche beat Lightning in Game 1 overtime thriller]
Colorado was by far the better team. During 5-on-5 play. On special teams. Statistically it is a lopsided game territorially as Colorado had a 3.59 to 1.71 expected goals edge in all situations. Yet the game still went to overtime where it was one shot from going in a different direction.
It really is a fascinating situation to watch unfold. Colorado is so good that it has not needed its goalie to be great. It mainly just needs Kuemper and/or Francouz to not lose the game. So far, that has been the case.
But Tampa Bay is the best team Colorado has faced so far this postseason and the first one that has a goalie at the other end of the ice that is capable of stealing some games and potentially shutting down the Avalanche offense.
At some point the Avalanche might need its goalies to be great in this series. Whether or not they can do that could be the difference between a championship and a very long offseason.
[Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick and Hockey-Reference]
COLORADO AVALANCHE v. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (COL leads 1-0)
Game 1 – Avalanche 4, Lightning 3 (OT)
Game 2 – June 18: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
Game 3 – June 20: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
Game 4 – June 22: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 5 – June 24: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 6 – June 26: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 7 – June 28: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
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.