Avalanche may be favourites, but Blues not your average underdogs

Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon, left, knows he's going to see a lot of Blues checking centre Ryan O'Reilly, right, during their second-round playoff series. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Nathan MacKinnon is tired of talking about second-round exits. Now he has another prime opportunity to change that narrative.

The dynamic Colorado Avalanche centre voiced his displeasure after getting bounced by the Vegas Golden Knights last season and he and his teammates have been on a mission ever since.

After sweeping the Nashville Predators in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Avalanche are back in familiar territory, ready to face the St. Louis Blues in a series that gets underway on Tuesday night at Ball Arena in Denver.

The Avalanche are viewed by many as a heavy favourite after finishing first in the Western Conference and second overall behind the Florida Panthers this season.

But MacKinnon and company realize that they’ll need to be firing on all cylinders in order to avoid getting eliminated in Round 2 for a fourth consecutive season.

MacKinnon has made a habit of being highly productive in the playoffs, amassing 33 goals and 75 points in 54 games in his career.

That trend continued in the opening round, where he racked up five goals and six points against the Predators.

MacKinnon is extremely difficult to contain, but he’s expected to see a healthy dose of Blues centre Ryan O’Reilly during the next several weeks.

That’s not an easy assignment, but it’s one MacKinnon understands well.

“It’s been so long. Just normal. I’ve been competing against Ryan for seven years now,” MackInnon told reporters in Denver. “He’s got a couple of Selkes (as the NHL’s best defensive forward) and he’s really good everywhere, so it’s going to be a really hard matchup, for sure.

“Positionally, there’s no cheating in his game. He’s not going to sacrifice defence to try to get points or whatever. He’s got a really good stick, a really good faceoff guy. Just a smart player. Really tough to play against.”

Mackinnon is bang-on in his assessment.

O’Reilly doesn’t cheat for offence, but still finds a way to deliver in that area, contributing four power-play goals and seven points in six games against the Minnesota Wild — which gave him 13 goals and 30 points during his past 25 playoff tilts.

When the lights are on and the spotlight is brightest, that’s when the 2019 Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP seems to be at his best.

Even if O’Reilly and the Blues find a way to keep MacKinnon in check (relatively speaking of course), the Avalanche are far from a one-man show.

They’ve got plenty of offensive weapons sprinkled throughout the forward group and a defence corps that features Cale Makar (who had a team-leading 10 points in the opening round) and Devon Toews.

Colorado features more depth than they’ve had in years past, with seven 20-goal scorers in the lineup, but the Blues led the NHL in that category with nine.

“They’re so deep, it’s going to be a big challenge for us forwards, just winning our matchups,” MacKinnon told reporters in Denver. “They really spread (the scoring) out. It’s not like there are two guys we’ve got to worry about. There are nine or 10. We’ve got to be really solid defensively, we’ve got to be good with the puck and (make) good decisions in the neutral zone and the O-zone.”

Smart puck management figures to be a high priority for both clubs in this series, as is discipline, since both teams have a lethal power play that can be the difference in what is expected to be a tightly-contested series.

The Blues are a playoff-hardened team with plenty of championship experience and while they take pride in playing a physical game, they’re also a more skilled team than the one the Avalanche swept last season — thanks in part to the arrivals of Pavel Buchnevich in a deal with the New York Rangers and Brandon Saad as a free agent, the emergence of homegrown forwards Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou, and having David Perron (five goals, nine points in the opening round) available at full health after missing the series last year.

“They do not need you to make a lot of mistakes in order to hurt you,” Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar told reporters earlier this week. “Even if they’re not feeling it, they can be really opportunistic.”

After setting career-highs for goals (20) and points (77) in 72 games, Thomas was limited to three helpers against the Wild and he’ll be looking to get going offensively.

The Blues are comfortable in an underdog role, but this isn’t a team that’s going to be satisfied with keeping things close. They’re a veteran group that has its sights set on winning a second Stanley Cup in four seasons.

“It’s a different team and a different mindset,” Blues head coach Craig Berube told reporters in St. Louis. “Guys will be motivated anyway, whether we’re underdogs or not. We don’t really look into that stuff. (The Avalanche) had a great year. They went stretches without losing and they’ve got a really good team over there. We’re going to have to do a lot of things right.”

It’s also a different defence corps for the Blues, even if the availability of Marco Scandella and Torey Krug remains up in the air, at least for the start of this series.

Colton Parayko, Justin Faulk and Nick Leddy (when he returned from injury for the final three games of the Wild series) have logged some big minutes, even after the Blues switched to a lineup that featured 11 forwards and seven blue-liners after Game 4.

Although the Avalanche have made a strong commitment since training camp to doing a better job of defending and figure to be the gold standard in the West for the foreseeable future because of the core pieces that are already locked up for years to come, there’s an increased level of urgency attached to this playoff run.

With Nazem Kadri, Valeri Nichushkin, Andre Burakovsky and goalie Darcy Kuemper among the nine pending unrestricted free agents on the Avalanche roster, the time to take that next step is now.

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