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Three questions facing Colorado Avalanche

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

Some questions to ponder regarding the 2018-19 Colorado Avalanche…

[Avalanche Day: Looking back | Under PressureBreakthrough ]

1. How good will Philipp Grubauer be?

The Avalanche made a big splash this offseason by getting Philipp Grubauer from the Washington Capitals in exchange for a second-round draft pick and taking on Brooks Orpik‘s contract (which was then bought out, allowing Orpik to return to Washington on a cheaper salary). The Avalanche immediately signed him to a three-year contract, presumably to be their long-term starting goalie.

The question is just how good he can be?  In his limited playing time with the Capitals Grubauer performed as well as any other goalie in the NHL, and was so good this past season that Barry Trotz actually gave him the starting job heading into the playoffs. It was a role he kept for two games before being replaced by long-time starter Braden Holtby — who then helped lead the team to the Stanley Cup — but it was still an incredibly strong statement in the belief that the Capitals had in Grubauer.

His limited resume is very encouraging, and he has certainly at least earned the right to be a starter. But it is all still based on an extremely small sampling of data, while goaltenders can be extremely difficult to project.

The potential is certainly there for the Avalanche to have landed an excellent starting goalie, but it is still very much of a mystery.

2. What about the defense? 

The Avalanche have been a bad defensive team in recent years, giving up shots and shot attempts at a rate that has consistently placed them among the worst in the league.

Even with their turnaround in the standings this past season, that was still true. One of the things that bailed them out was the fact they received strong goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier. This year the job gets passed along to Varlamov and Grubauer. Still, it would be beneficial for the Avalanche if they could become a better shot suppression team and not have to lean on their goaltenders so much.

Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie have been the mainstays on the blue line in recent seasons, and despite the trade rumors that always seem to follow Barrie around he is still a member of the team.

Nikita Zadorov, one of the pieces from the Ryan O'Reilly trade, took some positive steps forward this past season and is still only 23 years old. Samuel Girard, one of the players they picked up in the Matt Duchene trade is also loaded with potential and had a promising debut with the Avalanche this past season.

Then they also brought in Ian Cole in free agency on a three-year contract that will pay him more than $12 million (just over $4 million per season). Cole is a fearless shot blocker and logs big minutes on the penalty kill, and his role on a two-time Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh has certainly boosted his stock around the league. He is probably best served as a third-pairing defenseman, though, and if the Avalanche use him in that role (and with Johnson, Barrie, Zadorov and Girard all on the roster, that is possible) he could be a strong addition. An expensive third-pairing defender for sure, but probably a strong one.

3. Will anybody step up to take some pressure off the top line?

As mentioned in the Under Pressure look, there is going to be a huge expectation for Nathan MacKinnon (along with his linemate, Mikko Rantanen) to carry the offense this season, just as he did this past season. Whether or not he does that remains to be seen, but even if he does if the Avalanche are going to take the next step from a fringe playoff team to a contender in the Western Conference they are going to need another line (or two … or three) to emerge as a threat offensively. When the MacKinnon-Rantanen duo was off the ice this past season the Avalanche were still a team that was outshot and outscored. That is not going to be good enough, and if there is any sort of a regression from the top line it could erase all the positive strides the Avalanche made in 2017-18.

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.

It’s Colorado Avalanche day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

2017-18

43-30-9, 95 pts. (4th in the Central Division, 8th in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost 4-2 vs. Nashville Predators, first round

IN:

Philipp Grubauer
Matt Calvert
Ian Cole

OUT:

Nail Yakupov
Jonathan Bernier
Joe Colborne
Blake Comeau
Andrew Hammond

RE-SIGNED:

Gabriel Bourque
Matt Nieto
Patrik Nemeth

The Avalanche stunned the hockey world when they went from being one of the worst teams in league history in 2016-17 to being a playoff team in 2017-18. They got off to a rocky start, but things seemed to turn after they made a blockbuster deal with Ottawa and Nashville. They sent Matt Duchene to the Senators and got back a package that included defenseman Samuel Girard. Things seemed to click after that.

There’s many reasons why they were able to get their franchise back on the rails so quickly, but Nathan MacKinnon was the main catalyst.

[Avalanche Day: Building off a Breakthrough]

The 22-year-old was chosen as one of the three finalists for the Hart Trophy after he posted an incredible 39 goals and 97 points in 74 games last season. MacKinnon has always had immense potential, but he failed to live up to the hype in the three previous years. Now, it looks like he’s finally arrived as a franchise center. But he’s not the only reason Colorado was able to sneak in to the postseason.

Mikko Rantanen also took a huge step forward in his second NHL season. The 21-year-old went from being a 38-point scorer in year one to being an 84-point guy in his sophomore campaign. Getting point-per-game production from him was critical. Again, no one expected it, but it was a welcomed bonus.

Gabriel Landeskog (62 points) and Alex Kerfoot (43 points) also proved to be valuable assets to the Avs up front.

On defense, veterans Erik Johnson (missed 20 games) and Tyson Barrie (57 points in 68 games) played an important role. Barrie, in particular, stood out. He’s the primary puck-mover on the team. He anchors the power play and plays significant minutes for his team. There was rumblings about him being available, but Colorado did well to hold on to him.

Girard, Nemeth, Mark Barberio and Nikita Zadorov also found a way to up their game throughout the regular season.

Between the pipes, the Avs got solid play from Semyon Varlamov, who stayed healthy enough to play in 51 games, and they got some solid outings from last year’s backup goalie, Jonathan Bernier.

In the end, the Avalanche were knocked out in the first round by Nashville, but they didn’t go down without a fight. Even though they didn’t go on a long playoff run, it’s impossible to consider last season a failure for this young team.

Prospect Pool:

• Cale Makar, D, 19, UMass-Amherst – 2017 first-round pick

Makar is going back to school next season, so he won’t be a contributor for Avs during most of the year, but he could be one of those players that helps out once his college season is over, which means he could be an option in the playoffs. He’s a smaller defenseman, but he’s got smarts, skill and speed, which makes him the ideal modern-day blueliner. Expect him to be in Colorado sooner than later.

“I just felt it was in my best interest to go back to school for one more year and hopefully develop a little bit more,” Makar told NHL.com. “I’m getting to the point where I feel I’m pro ready, but at the end of the day I know that there are still some things in my game, whether it’s in the defensive side or off ice physically that I can tweak.”

• Conor Timmins, D, 19, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds – 2017 second-round pick

After taking Makar early in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the Avs came back in the second round and took Timmins. Despite suffering an ankle injury last January, Timmins still had a productive year with the Greyhounds (41 points in 36 games) and with Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship. He’s a smart defender with good skating ability. He’s also not shy to throw his weight around. He’ll make the leap to the pro ranks this season.

Vladislav Kamenev, C, 21, San Antonio Rampage – Acquired from Predators

The Avs got Kamenev from Nashville in that three-way deal that sent Duchene to Ottawa. Kamenev missed a good chunk of last season because of an arm injury, but he’s as NHL-ready as any of the top prospects in the Avalanche organization. He’s a versatile forward that can play any of the three spots up front. In his last full AHL season (2016-17), he picked up 20 goals and 51 points, so we know he can produce at the pro level. Kamenev just has to focus on staying healthy and taking his overall game up another notch or two.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Which team is most likely to come back from 2-1 deficit?

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We’re midway through the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and although the Vegas Golden Knights have already punched their ticket to the second round, there are still other spots that are up for grabs.

The Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild are on the brink of elimination. That’s not to say that they can’t overcome their current deficits, but they have a steep hill to climb. So let’s look at the teams that are down 2-1 in their respective series.

The Devils, Maple Leafs, Flyers, Capitals and Avalanche are all in that predicament. Every one of those teams, except Philadelphia, came away with a huge Game 3 victory, so there’s a sense of optimism surrounding those clubs. They aren’t in an ideal spot, but they aren’t dead either.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Who has the best chance of coming back to win the series? Let’s rank them from least likely to most likely.

• New Jersey Devils

Taylor Hall was sensational in New Jersey’s Game 3 victory, as he recorded a goal and two primary assists. Hall has played at least 20 minutes in each of the first three games of the series. He’s a matchup problem for any of Tampa’s skaters, but getting Brayden Point on the ice against him is clearly the preference for head coach Jon Cooper. But will Devils bench boss John Hynes be able to get the desired matchups when the series shifts back to Tampa? Hall will produce no matter what, but there’s no denying that winning on the road and winning at home are two different things, especially for a team with quite a few youngsters.

The wild card in all of this is Cory Schneider, who picked up his first win of 2018 in Game 3. Schneider looked as confident as he’s looked in quite some time, so stealing a game or two would go a long way in helping New Jersey come back. Again, that might be a lot to ask from a guy that lost his starting job to Keith Kinkaid for a few weeks.

“Still a lot of work to go. One win is a starting points, so we have to make sure we come back with the same intensity (Wednesday) night,” Schneider said, per NJ.com. “But yeah, 2-1 and 3-0 are a big difference. It was an important game for us to win just to get into the series and make it a series. Hopefully we can continue to make it more difficult as it goes on here.”

It’ll also be interesting to see how the bad blood at the end of Game 3 affects this series. Can the Devils use Mikhail Sergachev‘s hit on Blake Coleman as motivation? Does the rough stuff help Tampa Bay focus on getting back to business? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered heading into Game 4.

• Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers have been overwhelmed by the Penguins in two of the first three games, but here they are trailing to just one game heading into Game 4. Discipline has been a big problem for them through three contests. Even in the game that they won, they still took silly penalties, but managed to kill them off. If that doesn’t change, this series will be over faster than you can say “Philly cheese steak with no onions and extra cheese whiz”.

As if the 2-1 deficit to the Penguins wasn’t enough, it now looks like they might be without Sean Couturier, who was injured during a collision in practice with Radko Gudas. Missing him for any amount of time would be a huge loss for the Flyers.

Whether Couturier plays or not, Philadelphia will need more from Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek.

“There’s a lot of guys in here that can pick up slack, guys that are itching to get more time too,” Flyers goalie Brian Elliott said, per NHL.com. “If he’s not available, if he is available, I think our guys are ready for that.”

The Flyers proved that they could beat the Penguins, now they just have to show that they can do it three more times.

• Colorado Avalanche

The Avs have surprisingly dominated the opening period of each of these first three games. Unfortunately for them, they only have one win to show for it, but they can pull positives from the fact that they weren’t skated out of the building on the road against the Presidents’ Trophy winners.

Nathan MacKinnon and Hall are in similar situations, meaning that they’ll have to shoulder most of the offensive burden, but the Avs forward definitely has more help up front. Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog can also be difference-makers for Colorado.

You have to wonder how injuries have affected this series. How much do things change if Colorado has a healthy Erik Johnson, Samuel Girard and Semyon Varlamov. Missing Varlamov seems to be the biggest loss, as Jonathan Bernier has had his share of tough moments in the series. Is he capable of stealing a game in Nashville? That’s what it’s going to take for Colorado to move on to the second round.

Nothing is impossible, but it seems like the Avs are a year away from taking the next step. Overcoming this 2-1 deficit would be a huge surprise.

• Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs are an interesting case. They played a relatively strong home game in Game 3, as they managed to keep the Bruins’ top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak off the scoresheet. The thing is, they haven’t looked too good on Boston ice, where the desired matchups are a lot harder to come by. Deadline acquisition Tomas Plekanec along with Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey did what they had to do to keep that line in check in Game 3. Can they do it again? Even at home, that’s not a sure thing.

Boston’s first line had their share of opportunities, especially when the Bruins were pressing in the third period. You just get the feeling like the Leafs will have to do an impeccable job defensively and they’ll have to pray that the opposing trio doesn’t bury one, or two, or three.

Goalie Frederik Andersen is also an interesting case. He’s let in some bad goals during this series, including in Game 3, but he’s also managed to come up with some impressive saves at times. The Leafs are going to need a little more consistency from their number one netminder, or this thing could get away from them in a hurry.

And, of course, Toronto has to hope that Auston Matthews‘ game-winning goal in Game 3 will help give him the spark he needs to continue producing regularly. Monday’s goal was his first point of the playoffs.

“People find it hard to believe, but it’s easy to lose your confidence very quickly at playoff time,” head coach Mike Babcock said, per the Toronto Sun. “I think we’re in a great spot to get it back, and I really felt it helped Freddie (Monday) night, it helped Auston (Monday) night. A lot of guys are feeling better about themselves.”

•Washington Capitals

This is arguably the most interesting one of the lot. Sure, they’re the most likely team to come back from a 2-1 deficit, but they could easily be down 3-0 if Lars Eller doesn’t get that lucky bounce in double overtime on Tuesday night.

The Capitals have all the firepower they need to make a deep run, they just haven’t ever been able to do it. As the Caps have found out, the Blue Jackets are no joke, so they’ll have to be at their best to advance to the second round. Bowing out in the first round would probably bring about more changes in Washington, so they’ve got to come through if they want to stick together going forward.

Braden Holtby made some big saves during Game 3, but he also let in an incredibly weak goal to Pierre-Luc Dubois to tie the game at one in the second period. Holtby has been off for most of the year, but if there was ever a time for him to emerge as a hero, it’s right now.

“It puts us right back in the series,” Holtby said, per NHL.com. “I thought we held our composure really well in the overtimes. We didn’t cheat. We stuck to our systems and got a gritty goal to win it. It’s a good sign.”

Of the five teams trailing 2-1, there’s no denying that the Capitals are the most talented team. On the flip side, they also have the most playoff baggage of all the teams, too. It’ll be interesting to see if they can overcome these mental hurdles, but that lucky bounce in OT may have saved their season.

 —

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup

NBC Sports
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Winning the Stanley Cup is a daunting task that requires a talented team playing its best hockey at the right time of year, staying reasonably healthy, and perhaps most importantly getting a little bit of luck along the way.

Getting through four best-of-seven series against the best teams in the league over a two-month stretch with all of that going right, and without running into some team that has a ridiculously goalie playing out of his mind for two weeks, is a huge challenge.

Only one team does it every year. That means from a simple mathematical standpoint your team only has a six percent chance of being the one that is standing at the top of the mountain when the playoffs end in mid-June.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Every team in the field has some sort of a flaw or a question mark that will probably be their ultimate undoing.

In this week’s edition of the PHT Power Rankings we get you ready for the playoffs by looking at all of them, ranked in order of the team most likely to overcome their flaws, to the team least likely to do it.

Here we go.

1. Nashville Predators — On paper they are the most complete team in the league and that resulted in the league’s best record. Deep group of forwards? Check. Great defense? Check. Goalie having an amazing season? Check. Speaking of which, Pekka Rinne has been awesome this season, but can he maintain that level of play throughout the playoffs? His performance this season is a bit of an outlier when compared to recent seasons and he’s had some rough postseason showings over the years. He wasn’t great in the Stanley Cup Final a year ago, getting pulled in two of the six games.

2. Winnipeg Jets — This team has been around for 18 years, in two different cities, with two different names, and is playing in the playoffs for just the third time. It is an organization that, as of this posting, has yet to win a single playoff game in its existence. Forget winning a series, their next playoff win will be their first. They should finally get one this year. But will they be able to get 16 of them? They have a scary offense and Connor Hellebuyck has put together a season that should get him some Vezina Trophy votes, but there is also the possibility that he reverts back to being the Hellebuyck he was before this season. There’s also the fact that if they do get through Minnesota in round one their reward is (probably) going to be a series with the Presidents’ Trophy winning Nashville Predators. The playoff format might be their biggest undoing.

3. Boston Bruins — No matter how many injuries they had this season they just kept rolling along and have been incredible since the start of November. So what is a concern? Will Zdeno Chara be able to keep logging the minutes he has been at his age and playing the way he has or will he wear down a bit? Will they be able to stay healthy? Will Brad Marchand do something dumb and get himself suspended?

4. Tampa Bay Lightning — On paper the Lightning don’t have a lot of flaws, and they were one of the best teams in the league for most of the season. But they kind of limped down the stretch by winning just six of their final 13 games and generally not looking great over the past month. There is also this nightmare that Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are going to end up on the ice at the same time, a scenario that has been dreadful for them in the limited time they’ve been on the team together this year (outscored 6-2 in 120 5-on-5 minutes together). Just as it was during their Rangers days.

5. Vegas Golden Knights — The team nobody expected to be here. It has been a pretty incredible season where almost everything they have put their hands on has turned into a success. Eventually some of that luck has to run out … right? Also worth noting that Marc-Andre Fleury has a .908 career playoff save percentage in 115 games and has finished seven of his 11 playoff appearances with a save percentage below .908, including six under .900.

6. Washington Capitals — Deeper and better Capitals teams than this one failed to win the Stanley Cup in each of the past two years, so why would this one be any different? Plus, there were times this season they didn’t look as good as their record would seem to indicate. We don’t really know who their goalie is and the one that has been a rock the past few years — Braden Holtby — had an uncharacteristically bad year. Seems like a concern.

7. Pittsburgh Penguins — They can be a mess at times defensively, their penalty kill has been lousy for a few weeks, and they are not getting great goaltending. They had the some of the same flaws going into the playoffs a year ago and still managed to win another Stanley Cup because they could outscore everyone and, perhaps most importantly, received sensational goaltending from Fleury and Matt Murray. That is a concern going into the playoffs this season because Fleury is playing in Vegas, Murray has been hit-and-miss at times this year, and they do not really have a reliable backup behind him.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs — They are going to score a lot of goals and they are going to give up a lot of chances. No team in the playoffs gives up more shots on goal than them. If Frederik Andersen is not on top of his game the latter will cause a lot of problems. They also have the misfortune of drawing one of the NHL’s best teams in the first round.

9. Anaheim Ducks — They are the “hot team” heading into the playoffs, but they are also one of the teams dealing with some significant injuries (as they have all year). Cam Fowler is a big loss and John Gibson, for as great as he is, can’t seem to stay on the ice consistently.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets —  Artemi Panarin is the difference-maker they needed in their lineup and they have an outstanding duo on defense with Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, but how many teams win the Stanley Cup without a No. 1 center that topped 50 points? Pierre Luc-Dubois had a great rookie year and looks like he’s going to be a really good player in the NHL, but the lack of depth down the middle is going to be a problem. And that doesn’t even get into the question mark that is the playoff version of Sergei Bobrovsky.

11. San Jose Sharks — They very quietly put together a 100-point season (their best season in four years) and did it after losing Patrick Marleau in free agency and without Joe Thornton for half of the season. They are good, but that seems to be the ceiling. There is nothing really special about them, especially if Thornton isn’t able to return.

12. Philadelphia Flyers — Goaltending is a big question, as it always seems to be with the Flyers, but they also have a big problem when their top line is not on the ice. When Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier were on the ice during 5-on-5 play this season the Flyers outscored teams by a 70-40 margin and controlled 55 percent of the total shot attempts. When neither player was on the ice: They were outscored 76-96 and only controlled 48 percent of the total shot attempts. Their first-round opponent is going to roll out Sidney Crosby on one line, Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist on another line, and Derick Brassard and Phil Kessel on another line.

13. Los Angeles Kings — They have been a different team with Jeff Carter in the lineup and he gives them a great 1-2 punch down the middle with Anze Kopitar, but they still have some issues. They are not the dominant possession team they have been in recent years and it’s still a top-heavy team that doesn’t have a lot of scoring depth beyond its top four or five players.

14. Minnesota Wild — The Pittsburgh Penguins were able to win a championship a year ago without their No. 1 defenseman. That might give the Wild, who will not have Ryan Suter in the postseason due to an ankle injury, a little bit of hope that it can be done. The problem for the Wild is going to be the fact they don’t have the firepower the Penguins had, and probably will not be fortunate enough to get the level of goaltending the Penguins did. Their potential path to the Conference Final would also probably have to include going through the top two teams in the NHL. Literally, the top two teams. No. 1 and 2 in the league in total points. Good luck, everybody.

15. Colorado Avalanche — Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are great, but it’s not a particularly deep team around and they also have some injury issues with Semyon Varlamov and Erik Johnson on the shelf going into the playoffs. Great success story this season to go from the absolute worst team in hockey to the playoffs in one year. It is a nice stepping stone in the development of the team. It probably ends there this season.

16. New Jersey Devils — Taylor Hall almost single handedly dragged this team to the playoffs, and it was an incredible accomplishment. He probably will not be leading them to 16 more. Like the Avalanche this was a wildly successful year and perhaps the most encouraging thing is the development of some of their young players. But it is not a Stanley Cup team. Yet.

————

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.

 

Predators vs. Avalanche: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

NBC Sports
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The Nashville Predators’ record speaks for itself — they simply have everything in place to win a Stanley Cup.

They led the league with 117 points, garnering them the Presidents’ Trophy, and had the least number of regulation losses and the best away record in the NHL. They were simply dominant during the regular season and deserve the title as Stanley Cup favorites just hours before the first puck drops to start the 2017-18 postseason.

Nashville enters the playoffs with a 53-18-11 record. They were third in the NHL in terms of goal differential at +56.

While the Preds clinched weeks ago, the Avalanche needed to do so in their last game of the regular season — a thrilling 4-1 in a win-and-in against the St. Louis Blues (which featured a very close call on an offside review that ultimately stood as a goal).

Colorado finished the season with 43-30-9, good for 95 points – lowest among the 16 teams that made the dance.

In four games between both clubs, Nashville showed their might with a 4-0-0 record (three regulation wins and one win in overtime), while managing 17 goals for and just eight against.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Nashville shouldn’t have any issues in this series. They’re healthy, have the likely Vezina winner between the pipes, two candidates for the Norris on the blue line and a forward contingent that only got more dangerous as the season wore on with the additions of Kyle Turris (via trade), Mike Fisher (who came out of retirement) and Eeli Tolvanen (who Nashville signed after this KHL postseason ended last month).

The Avalanche, despite closing out the season 2-4-1 in their last seven games, still found a way to get two points when they needed to. Sure, they’ll be riding that high and will have the benefit of having to have played several playoff-style games down the stretch, but it’s a tough ask for a team to go toe-to-toe with the best team in the NHL without their starting goalie Semyon Varlamov and top-pairing defenseman Erik Johnson, both lost for the season due to separate injuries.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Nashville: The Preds have the luxury of icing four lines that can put up points. It’s not just Filip Forsberg (26 goals, 64 points) and Viktor Arvidsson (29 goals and 61 points), the team’s top two scoring leaders. Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith finished up with 20-plus goal seasons and Scott Hartnell and Nick Bonino had 10-plus. In 5-on-5 situations, the Predators sit ninth in shot share at 51.5 percent and second in goals-for percentage at  56.7 percent. Hint: that’s good.

Colorado: Colorado’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon (39 goals, 97 points), Mikko Rantanen (29 goals, 84 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (25 goals, 62 points) combined for 36 percent of the team’s goal production this season. They were simply a force and a big reason why MacKinnon is a Hart Trophy candidate and the Avalanche are in the playoffs. That line absolutely has to produce to win, but the Avalanche need their other three lines to contribute. The analytics suggest the Avs struggle in 5-on-5 situations sitting in 27th in shot share with 47.6 percent. Even with their stacked top line, their goals-for percentage sits 15th at 52.1 percent.

Advantage: Predators. If it was top line vs. top line, Colorado would have the edge. But all four Predators lines can score, and do.

DEFENSE

Avalanche: Losing Erik Johnson for the playoffs is a massive blow, let that be known. Sure, Tyson Barrie plays a pivotal role on the backend in all three phases of the game, but Johnson isn’t a guy you can replace and his presence — 25:26 TOI per night — will be missed. Some of that extra ice time will fall to Samuel Girard. The rookie defenseman has been impressive this season and anchors the second-unit power play.

Predators: Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are a formidable duo, and then teams have to deal with P.K. Subban and Matthias Ekholm. Nashville’s defense is as stout as there is in the NHL. They can also produce: Subban had 16 goals and 59 points this season and finished in the top-10 in d-man scoring. Josi, meanwhile, was no slouch either with his 14 goals and 53 points, putting him in the top-15.

Advantage: Predators. Only the Los Angeles Kings (202) allowed fewer goals than the Predators (204).

GOALTENDING

Avalanche: This matchup would be closer with Varlamov in net, but injuries derailed that late in the season. Bernier isn’t a bad goalie by any means, but asking him to carry the Avalanche in the same way the man 200 down ice from him can is nigh impossible. Bernier’s .913 save percentage won’t move the needle, but his 19-13-3 record helped propel this team to the playoffs, and when Varlamov missed time earlier this season, Bernier won nine straight amid a mid-season 10-game winning streak for the Avs that took them from the depths of the Central Division into a playoff fight they eventually won.

Predators: Pekka Rinne. Need we say more? He’s likely the frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy this season with 42 wins, a .927 save percentage and eight shutouts. He also has one the best — if not the best — defenses playing in front of him. Rinne is one of the league’s elite.

Advantage: This one isn’t close unless Bernier goes on a heater. It’s the team with the likely Vezina winner. It’s Nashville. Both teams give up a lot of shots (both are in the lower third in the league). Advantage to the team with the guy better at stopping them.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Predators: The Preds loved trips to the penalty box – they were the most penalized team in the NHL this season, putting themselves shorthanded a whopping 299 times, 18 more than any other team. What helped them was a solid penalty kill, ranking sixth in the league at 81.9 percent. That will be crucial going forward — the penalty kill bit — but some discipline would be a welcomed addition to an already-formidable team. On the power play, the Preds finished with a respectable 21.2 percent conversion rate with the man-advantage. Subban led with way with 25 power play points while Forsberg kicked in 21 of his own.

Avalanche: The Avs were a whole seven-tenths of a percentage point better than the Predators on the power play at 21.9 percent, scoring 65 times this season. When you’re top unit consists of the same guys who play on your top line, it’s a pretty safe bet that production will happen. Rantanen led the Avs with 35 power-play points, with MacKinnon a close second with 32. Tyson Barrie, manning the point with MacKinnon, pitched in 30. The second unit got 17 points for Alexander Kerfoot and 12 from Samuel Girard. On the penalty kill, Colorado finished fourth in the league at 83.3 percent despite finishing with the ninth most number of times shorthanded.

Advantage: The numbers don’t lie — gotta give this one to the Avalanche, although it’s very close.

X-FACTORS

Avalanche: Jonathan Bernier. With Varlamov done for the season with a lower-body injury, Bernier will be looked to for stellar goaltending against one of the top goal-scoring teams in the NHL this season. Bernier put up pedestrian numbers this season backing up Varlamov but owns a career 9-4-0 record with a .917 save percentage against the Predators.

Predators: The Avs own a good power play and the Predators like to take a lot of penalties. It’s not a winning concoction if you’re the Predators, even if your penalty kill is above average. In games that will be tight from pillar to post, toning down the number of trips to the sin bin could give the Predators another advantage in the series.

PREDICTION

Nashville in four games. Nashville dominated the season series, sweeping the Avalanche. The Predators have only gotten stronger while the Avs are dealing with key injuries. This should go quick.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck