As the Columbus Blue Jackets steal the headlines for their quick four-game upset of the 62-win Tampa Bay Lightning, the impressive nature of the Colorado Avalanche‘s own upset as a No. 8 seed has been undervalued.
A fast, powerful team coming into its own at the right time now has to go up against perennial contender San Jose, who have missed the playoffs just twice in 21 seasons, reaching four conference finals and one Stanley Cup final in that time. But not once have they won hockey’s ultimate prize.
In this series we have the convergence of a long-standing league power with a team in position to blossom into a year in, year out force. If experience is a factor, San Jose holds all the cards, but don’t underestimate the Avalanche who came into the playoffs as one of the NHL’s hottest teams.
Here’s a closer look at the Sharks-Avalanche Round 2 series:
Regular season 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick (with league rank)
Colorado: 49.86 CF% (14th), 50.49 GF% (17th), .923 SV% (9th), 7.62 SH% (22nd), .999 PDO (15th)
San Jose: 54.87 CF% (1st), 50.93 GF% (14th), .897 SV% (31st), 9.03 SH% (5th), .987 PDO (27th)
REGULAR SEASON TEAM STATS
Colorado: 22.0 PP% (7th), 78.7 PK% (25th), 258 GF (10th), 244 GA (16th)
San Jose: 23.6 PP% (6th), 80.8 PK% (15th), 289 GF (2nd), 258 GA (21st)
San Jose: 3-0-0
The story of the first round:
Few gave the Avalanche a chance against Calgary. This was a team that went through a 7-18-6 mid-season slump from Dec. 4 to Feb. 16 over which time they were the worst team in the NHL. Things of course corrected pretty significantly as the Avs finished 15-6-3 after that, a stretch that coincided with goalie Philipp Grubauer snatching the No. 1 job from Semyon Varlamov. Grubauer’s .956 save percentage from Feb. 17 on was bested by only Ben Bishop.
But not only did the Avalanche beat the Flames, they demolished them in five quick games. Once criticized as being a one-line team, the Avs long ago split up the Rocky Mountain Line and put Mikko Rantanen on the second unit. They played with pace, won the game of transition and beat the Flames at their own game.
No forward averaged more time on ice in the first round (on any team) than Nathan MacKinnon‘s 23:47. At just even strength, two of the top three forwards in Round 1 ice time were MacKinnon (18:23) and Gabriel Landeskog (18:14). And even though Rantanen wasn’t a permanent member on a line with those two he averaged 21:11 of ice time in the first round to make Colorado the only team to have three forwards who averaged more than 21 minutes. They’ll go as far as their big guys take them.
On top of that, Colorado’s mobile defencemen starred in the spotlight, led by Tyson Barrie, Sam Girard (who was injured in Game 2) and the late addition of Cale Makar in Game 3, who was signed out of the NCAA after his season ended with a Hobey Baker win. Makar took the NHL by storm and his 65.56 shots for percentage in the first round was fourth-best in the league of all blueliners who played at least three games.
On the other side, the Sharks arrive in Round 2 following a wild end to a wacky series that they probably shouldn’t have won. And that’s not a shot at the controversial penalty call that opened the door for San Jose to make an improbable comeback and win Game 7 against Vegas — the Sharks trailed that series 3-1, goalie Martin Jones was pulled twice and finished with a 3.20 GAA, and the last two games were decided in overtime. This easily could be the Vegas Golden Knights facing Colorado in Round 2.
Stacked with forward talent up front, and with a pretty good collection of defencemen headlined by Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, San Jose’s Achilles heel was its goaltending, which finished 31st in regular season save percentage. But despite the bad numbers overall, Jones stepped up when San Jose was most desperate, making 58 saves in a Game 6 win.
Avalanche X-Factor: Nathan MacKinnon is going to get his. Mikko Rantanen, who scored the most even strength points for Colorado in Round 1, will get his. Although the Avs aren’t straight up a one-line team right now, the Sharks have considerably more forward depth so Colorado needs to get something productive from lower down in the lineup.
Enter J.T. Compher.
Colorado was 9-2-3 in games where Compher scored a goal this season, 5-1 when he’s gotten a point in their past two playoff series, and 1-4 when he hasn’t. It’s not that Compher is specifically the reason why Colorado wins these games — it’s that when up against stiff, Cup contending competition, it’s often the lesser-knowns who have the most memorable impacts and Compher is the best representative of that.
“When our depth players play well, it gives us a much better chance to win,” Compher told the Denver Post prior to Game 5 against Calgary. “And I think that shows, late in the game, it’s been line after line. Everyone’s getting involved with physicality, and we’re playing as a unit right now, which is generating a lot of offence for us.”
Compher scored twice against the Flames — one to tie Game 2 with less than three minutes in regulation, and the other in Game 4 when Colorado was trailing 2-0. They eventually won the game in overtime.
“Your top players are (matched up) every night against other teams’ top players, and you need depth of scoring,” Avs coach Jared Bednar told the Post. “(It’s) not just big goals that he’s scored, but timely goals, goals to get us back.”
Sharks X-Factor: Erik Karlsson missed 27 of San Jose’s last 33 regular season games because of groin injuries and the results since he returned on the last day of the regular season have been mixed. Karlsson himself admitted to not going too hard in that first game, which happened to be against Colorado, while his ice time in the seven-game series against Vegas took some wild swings, but never fell below 20 minutes.
And while Karlsson leads the Sharks with nine points through one round, seven of which were primary assists, the trade-off in chances and goals the other way hasn’t always been in San Jose’s favour. Of the 14 goals Vegas scored at 5-on-5, Karlsson was on the ice for 11 of them, while the Sharks scored just six times with No. 65. San Jose controlled a meagre 39.22 per cent of the 5-on-5 shots with Karlsson on the ice, despite the fact he started in the offensive zone more than half the time.
It should be noted the team as a whole only took 43.9 per cent of the shots, but Karlsson’s share was the lowest of all defencemen. As a comparison Brent Burns, who averaged three more minutes per game than Karlsson and scored four points, had an on-ice shots for percentage of 43.36 and was on the ice for just as many 5-on-5 goals for (four) as against.
The Avalanche will bring a powerful and quick attack which in some ways will resemble Vegas’ main strength as a transition team that creates off the rush. Karlsson was deeply involved in San Jose’s attack, including a slick primary assist on the series-winning goal, but with the team weakness behind him in net, it’s not ideal for the Sharks to continue giving up more chances than they get with Karlsson on the ice. Even still, an injured Karlsson can create a goal for you at the drop of a hat.
Sam Girard, upper-body (day-to-day)
Joe Pavelski, head (day-to-day)
Joonas Donskoi, undisclosed (day-to-day)