Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 2 Preview: Avalanche vs. Blues

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, left, struggles to control the puck as St. Louis Blues center Ryan O'Reilly defends in the first period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, April 26, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Another year, another sweep.

One year after unceremoniously ousting the St. Louis Blues in the first round, the Colorado Avalanche made quick work of the Nashville Predators and once again head to Round 2 looking like a super power and a top contender to win it all.

Next up is a familiar foe in St. Louis — but these Blues aren’t the same team Colorado faced one year ago. After struggling to string together any offence last spring, the Blues are firing on all cylinders thanks to clutch performances from a deep group of stars old and new.

Here’s what you need to know about the second-round matchup between the Avalanche and Blues.

HEAD-TO-HEAD RECORD

Avalanche: 2-1-0

Blues: 1-2-0 

The Story of How the Avalanche Got Here:

Darryl Sutter was right. When the Calgary Flames head coach told reporters in March that matching up against the Avalanche in the first round would be “a waste of eight days,” he wasn’t joking around — and, unfortunately for the Nashville Predators, neither was Colorado.

Just four games into what is expected to be a long playoff run, the Avalanche have already ousted the Predators in a series that looked a lot like last year’s sweeping of St. Louis. One year after outscoring St. Louis 20-7 through four games, they routed Nashville by a combined 21-9.

At the forefront of Colorado’s first-round success were the usual suspects: Nathan MacKinnon scored at least one goal in all four games against Nashville, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen each had a pair of multi-point games, and Cale Makar … well, he was simply sensational with a team-leading 10 points in the series. His 2.5 points per game leads the league.

Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing in Denver. A scary scene unfolded early in Game 3 when Darcy Kuemper took a stick to the right eye. Thankfully, no significant damage was done and his eyesight was not affected. Swelling around the area ruled him out for Game 4, but he’s officially been given the all-clear to suit up for Game 1 against the Blues. Pavel Francouz stepped up in his absence and registered a 2.97 goals-against average and .902 save percentage in two games — not show-stopping numbers, but enough to backstop the Avalanche to a pair of wins to close out the series when they needed it.

Just as it did through 82 regular-season games, Colorado’s electric offence showed up in spades as it made the seamless transition into playoff-mode, averaging a league-high 5.25 goals per game. So, too, did its efficient power play — the Avalanche had 16 power-play opportunities and scored on seven of them for a league-best 43.8 per cent success rate. All this, while allowing an average of just 2.25 goals per game.

But perhaps the most impressive thing about the Avalanche, or, the scariest if you’re St. Louis, is their health. Colorado’s got a full, healthy and now well-rested roster.

And while this sounds like a recipe for another dominant performance against a familiar foe in Round 2, these Blues are not the same club that showed up to the post-season a year ago …

The Story of How the Blues Got Here:

Heading into the playoffs, no two teams looked as well-matched for a tightly contested series than the first-round matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild. It had “Game 7” written all over it.

In reality, though, we saw six lopsided games, the closest of which was won by a three-goal margin. And just when we thought the Wild might pull ahead after rebounding from a 4-0 shutout loss in Game 1, St. Louis grabbed hold of the series with three straight wins to claim it in six.

Perhaps last year’s uninspiring early out against Colorado has coloured our expectations, but these are not last year’s Blues. A more accurate comparison, rather, is to look at the 2019 Cup-winning club because we’re already seeing several throwback performances.

This edition of the Blues is an interesting merging of the veteran championship core we saw hoist the Cup three years ago and a new young core that’s now helping carry the team forward.

Their biggest strength is undoubtedly their depth. Vintage performances from leading goal-scorer Vladimir Tarasenko and netminder Jordan Binnington are headlining the team’s success so far, as is the reliable playoff presence of David Perron and Ryan O’Reilly. Jordan Kyrou is a name we’ve already heard lots of in Round 1 as a leader of the next wave of talent.

Head coach Craig Berube’s decision to turn the crease over to Binnington ahead of Game 4 might just be his best. After Ville Husso shut Minnesota out in Game 1, he let in a combined nine in the next two, prompting the change. Binnington, who until that Game 4 start hadn’t won a playoff game since the victory that sealed the championship against the Bruins, is looking like his old self.

While this is an incredibly deep team up front, the depth on the blue line is being tested every night. Veterans Nick Leddy and Torey Krug both missed half the series, Marco Scandella appeared in just two first-round games, Robert Bortuzzo missed a pair and rookie Scott Perunovich recovered from wrist surgery just in time to jump into the lineup for the final three games of the series. That left rearguards Justin Faulk and Colton Parayko to eat up marathon minutes, and they more than rose to the challenge. Faulk averaged a series-leading 26:21 per game through six games, with Parayko just behind him with 25:47.

ADVANCED STATS

Regular season 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick

REGULAR SEASON TEAM STATS

Avalanche X-Factor: Cale Makar

It almost feels unfair that a team with such a powerful offensive core with one of the best players in the world in MacKinnon should also have the best defender in the game. To watch Makar is to witness hockey being played at its best. The 23-year-old has a team-leading 10 points through four games, his 2.5 points-per-game average a league-high mark. Makar has yet to be held off the scoresheet this spring with three multi-point games, and his ability to quarterback the power play is a major reason Colorado has a 43.8 per cent success rate after Round 1.   

Playing alongside him and not to be overlooked is fellow top-pair rearguard Devon Toews, who also had himself a series against Nashville with three goals and five points.

Blues X-Factor: Jordan Binnington

When the Blues went from worst to first and ran all the way to claim the Cup in 2019, they did so on the hot hand of a rookie netminder who quickly became one of the best stories in the game. Now, Binnington is back in the starter’s crease after head coach Craig Berube opted to go with him over Husso in Game 4, and it’s got us seeing flashbacks from that Cup run.

In three games against Minnesota, Binnington allowed just five goals on 88 shots for a 1.67 goals-against average, a .943 save percentage, and — most importantly, of course — a trio of victories to backstop the Blues to Round 2.

Considering the banged-up state of the blue line in front of him, Binnington’s throwback performance couldn’t have come at a better time. That he is accomplishing this after a bumpy few seasons, including a winless record in nine playoff starts since hoisting the Cup, is all the more impressive.

BROADCAST DETAILS

Game 1: Tuesday, May 17, 9:30 p.m. (Sportsnet and CBC)

Game 2: Thursday, May 19, 9:30 p.m. (Sportsnet and CBC)

Game 3: Saturday, May 21, 8 p.m. (Sportsnet and CBC)

Game 4: Monday, May 23, 9:30 p.m. (Sportsnet and CBC)

*Game 5: Wednesday, May 25, TBD

*Game 6: Friday, May 27, TBD

*Game 7: Sunday, May 29, TBD

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