The league-dominating Colorado Avalanche will take on the Nashville Predators, one of the last teams to qualify for the playoffs, in a Stanley Cup Playoffs first-round matchup that looks completely lopsided on paper.
Sometimes a series like this has the makings of a sneaky upset, when a hot goalie or a spunky, youthful team takes on a heavy favourite and forgets it's an underdog. This is not one of those series. The Avalanche are young and fast, the Predators ... not so much, and they're facing a major crisis in net at precisely the wrong time. There's more to this matchup than just that, however.
Let's take a closer look:
The Predators won the season series, but the last two games were in overtime and the shootout. So, this feels like it will play out as expected. The Avalanche have an overwhelming battalion of scorers, with Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, sensational defenceman Cale Makar, pending-free-agent beast Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, captain Gabriel Landeskog, Devon Toews and Valeri Nichushkin all finishing with 50 points or more. Across the ice, the Predators have stud D-man Roman Josi, Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg, Mikael Granlund and Ryan Johansen all at 63 points or above.
Where to begin with the Avalanche? This is a team that has been zipping along on all cylinders practically since the first faceoff. They were neck-and-neck with the Panthers for the Presidents' Trophy until the last week of the season, they have the most exciting defenceman to watch in years, a bevy of supremely talented forwards and a goalie they overpaid for but is fortunately for them having a career year.
And they even won the begrudging admiration of Calgary Flames coach Darryl Sutter, who isn't known to be effusive with praise.
Of all the Avs forwards, the most frequent side-eye glances will be paid to Kadri, both because of his history as a suspension-earning hooligan in the playoffs with the Avs and while with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but also because Colorado is going to need his second-line scoring to make a difference if the top line is somehow neutralized. And if Kadri's line occasionally finds itself up against Johansen's, score that a win for the Avs. A return to health by Landeskog and Ryan Murray are concerns for the Avs, but only if the series gets rough and goes deep.
On D, the top pairing of Makar and Toews should dominate, mainly because their tried-and-true method of defending has been to make sure the puck stays in the other team's end as much as possible. Samuel Girard, Bowen Byram and Erik Johnson are a good mix of veteran and youth, offence and stay-at-home. If deadline acquisition Josh Manson, who has struggled in his short time with the team, finds his comfort level, this will be a well-rounded corps.
Between the pipes, Darcy Kuemper has done everything he's been asked by the Avalanche, but a scary slump in his last five games – in which he had save percentages of .892, .906, .909, .808 and .889 – is cause for concern. Dare we say it, but if Kuemper falls flat, the Avs will have to open up the throttle even more to stay ahead. Which is kind of fun to think of, actually.
The Predators have essentially been a one-line team this season, with Forsberg-Granlund-Duchene showing up most often on game highlights and accounting for twice as many goals as any other unit. It's an exciting line to watch, and Johansen provides a modicum of depth down the middle, but otherwise this is a much thinner group than the Avs, so look for a lot of aggressive forechecking and neutral-zone pressure by the Preds.
On D, Josi had a season for the ages – 23 goals! – and is a Norris Trophy candidate as a result, but beyond him the crew is thin and it will be in tough to withstand the Avs' speedy onslaught shift after shift, period after period, game after game.
If that weren't all depressing enough, the Preds face a major challenge in net with No. 1 Juuse Saros hobbling with an apparent ankle injury. Other than a groin injury, an ankle injury for a goalie takes a lot of time to heal, what with all the shuffling and pushing from side to side. If he returns, he won't be 100 per cent, and if he's not 100 per cent against the firepower provided by the Avs, well, look no further than the last game of the season, when callup Connor Ingram was lit up for five straight goals after the Preds went up 4-0 in the first against the Coyotes. If Saros can't go, David Rittich and his .886 save percentage would take his place, but the message is pretty clear. Saros played the most games of any goalie in the league this season, so this is what happens when you put all your eggs in one net.
(5-on-5 totals via Natural Stat Trick)
REGULAR SEASON TEAM STATS
Avalanche X-Factor: Nathan MacKinnon
One of the top 10 forwards in the league, MacKinnon has had himself a season. First of all, he missed the first two games while in COVID-19 protocol. Then he missed almost a month with a lower-body injury. And although his record is clean, he probably should have been fined or suspended for slashing a linesman in February. Then, a month after suffering a facial fracture and a concussion on a hit by Taylor Hall that turned out to be caused by his own stick, he thought it was a good idea to fight Dysin Mayo.
There's playing with an edge, and then there's playing over the edge. MacKinnon has been playing all season like he's trying to give back his Lady Byng or it's the playoffs, which is good in theory but you can't maintain that intensity all season without burning out or getting fined or costing your team with unwise moves. If the supremely talented MacKinnon can hold it together for a supremely talented Avs team many expect to challenge for the Stanley Cup, he has a Conn Smythe in him. But one does not come without the other.
Stars X-Factor: Mikael Granlund
Really, any one of the top-line players could make the difference for the Predators, and a goalie would be a decent pick here too, especially given the circumstances. But no one will be more important than No. 1 centre Granlund, who will be taking a lot of draws against any number of the Avs' top centres. If he falters at all at winning possession, expect to see a lot of Johansen and Colton Sissons out taking faceoffs between Duchene and Forsberg, especially in tight situations, because they're better at them than he is.
Tuesday, May 3: at Colorado, 9:30 p.m. ET (Sportsnet 360)
Thursday, May 5: at Colorado, 9:30 p.m. ET (Sportsnet 360)
Saturday, May 7: at Nashville, 4:30 p.m. ET (Sportsnet)
Monday, May 8: at Nashville, 9:30 p.m. ET (SN1)
*Wednesday, May 11: at Colorado
*Friday, May 13: at Nashville
*Sunday, May 15: at Colorado