The Colorado Avalanche spent two months in the middle of the season as the worst team in the NHL. They had only five victories in a period of 27 games during the months of December and January. Now, they are the first Western Conference team to advance to the second round after getting rid of the best Calgary Flames in just five games.
While many are surprised that the Avalanche have been able to beat Calgary, the most surprising thing is the ease with which they did it, and how they managed to achieve the feat. If you had told someone before the series that Colorado would go ahead, most would have badumed that it was Mike Smith who cost his team the series. The veteran netminder was among the worst in the league during the regular season. He showed that the skeptics were wrong with an impressive performance in the playoffs, unfortunately it was not enough to win the series. Led by the team's stars, the Avalanche dominated Calgary from the second game. Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen were the offensive catalyst, as the big 3 teams combined for nine of the team's 17 goals in the five series of games.
Whether they were playing together or if Rantanen was on the second line with Carl Soderberg, the Avalanche stars were the main reason why Colorado was able to achieve an impressive 56% shooting percentage in the series. What's more impressive is that they were able to do it against Calgary's 3M line, a combination that is often considered one of the best 3-zone lines in the league.
Not only did Colorado's top strikers play like that, but the team was able to completely close the most lethal NHL lineups. No team scored more goals than the 289 that the Llamas presented this season. The trio of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk combined for 107 goals throughout the regular season: they could only score four to five sets of games.
A lot of this has to do with the fact that Philipp Grubauer has been the best goalkeeper so far in the playoffs. Something that is not too surprising given that he was the goalkeeper with the best performance in the last month of the regular season.
The Avalanche gained possession and fired the battle in games two through five, but Grubauer was there when he had to be. He made the great save when necessary and allowed the Avalanche to take the necessary risks to overcome the Flames.
Grubauer's game is badisted by a Colorado defense group that is terribly underestimated in the league. The veteran combination of Erik Johnson and Ian Cole gave the Avs the kind of sturdy, tight game you need to be successful in the postseason. After a rocky regular season, Ian Cole sees himself as a new man in the playoffs, as he is helping to show that the old school thinks that certain players simply "know how to win" in the playoffs. The two did not play together for large portions of the uniform strength game, but if there was a confrontation in the defensive zone in this series, you could count on Johnson and Cole being there for the Avalanche.
Cole was able to take a big step forward once Samuel Girard left the series with an injury, but it was Tyson Barrie who caused the biggest impact. Tyson Barrie has been a man on a mission for the past six weeks and, if it were not for the decent performance of Nathan MacKinnon's Hart Trophy, Barrie would be the team's MVP at the moment. He dominated almost every turn during this series, and not only offensively, he was almost perfect in all three zones.
Then there is Cale Makar. The 20-year-old rookie went from being the winner of Hobey Baker to the runner-up of the National Championship to seeing himself as a legitimate star in the NHL playoffs. He has only played three professional hockey games, but Makar seems almost unstoppable. The Sportsnet panel compared it to Rob Blake during the intermission on Friday night and it is difficult to discuss that badogy. It has an impact on all three zones and has the kind of ease for your game that only comes with superstar players. It is not there yet, but it is easy to see that the sky is the limit for the young defender.
Coach Bednar is giving Makar a lot of starts in the offensive zone, so he is protected to some extent, something that is expected. He has been able to overcome all the challenges with great success and it is obvious that the coaching staff is gaining confidence since Makar was on the ice for a major defensive zone face to face in the overtime of game four. We all knew it was good, but it is not likely that someone thought it would be so good, so fast.
Finishing the series on Friday night in Calgary could provide a great advantage for the Avs in the future. The team can now go home and rest while they wait for the winner of the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights series. The free time will give Derick Brbadard time to overcome his illness, but more importantly, it will give Sam Girard time to recover from the upper body injury he suffered in the overtime of game two.
The first game of the second round will not start until Wednesday or Thursday of next week, which gives the team almost a full week to rest, recover and practice a bit under their belt with the new rookie star in the fold.
Most around hockey discarded this team in February, now they are the hottest team in the NHL. The Avalanche are playing with house money from here on out. They have gone further than even many of their fans could have imagined and now have every reason to believe that they can continue to win in these playoffs, regardless of their opponent.