There are many reasons to like the Colorado Avalanche in this series. They have distinct advantages in overall team speed and in goaltending. They’re healthier, and they’re rested in comparison to the San Jose Sharks.
And yet it’s difficult to ignore the supernatural forces that propelled the Sharks through the first round.
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The double-overtime win on the road in Game 6, getting a career night from the previously leaky Martin Jones in goal and a winning goal from Tomas Hertl, who had vowed there would be a Game 7. Then, in Game 7, being gifted a five-minute major penalty by the referees after Cody Eakin‘s cross-check led to a Joe Pavelski injury, and erasing a three-goal deficit with four power-play goals before eventually winning in overtime.
Here’s a breakdown of this second-round battle between the Sharks (101 points, second in the Pacific) and the Avalanche (90 points, second wild card).
First line: Like many coaches in the postseason, Avs coach Jared Bednar hasn’t hesitated to scramble his dynamic top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. The first two skated with Alexander Kerfoot in the first round, and Rantanen has played with Colin Wilson and Carl Soderberg. But when assembled, this line is savage: 44 goals in 66 games together in the regular season, with a 61.11 goals for percentage. The Sharks’ top line lately was Pavelski — who will miss the start of the series after his horrific Game 7 injury against Vegas — along with Timo Meier and Logan Couture. Though they can be an effective trio, the Avalanche had a gold-standard top line when it plays together. Advantage: Avalanche.
Depth: The Sharks received a stellar first round from Hertl — including the double-OT winner in Game 6 — who is tied with Couture for the team lead in goals (6). But far too many of the Sharks’ depth forwards didn’t find the score sheet with regularity in Round 1, including Evander Kane and Joe Thornton (both with 1 goal, 3 assists), Gustav Nyquist (0 goals, 3 assists) and Marcus Sorensen (2 assists). Kevin Labanc was solid, with two goals and three assists. Meanwhile, Colorado’s depth was seen as questionable for most of the series, but their first round hinted there’s more to them than just the members of the MacKinnon line. Matt Nieto, Wilson and J.T. Compher all had two goals. Derick Brassard should be ready for Game 1 after being felled by an illness in the previous round. Advantage: Sharks.
Defense: The Sharks’ blue line received a boost when Marc-Edouard Vlasic returned from injury in Game 5, partnering with Brent Burns (1 goal, 3 assists) and helping to stabilize the defense in front of Jones. Erik Karlsson … well, he was all over the map. He skated 27:15 per game and amassed nine assists, but his underlying numbers were uncharacteristically ordinary (like a 40.75 expected goals percentage at 5-on-5). Conventional wisdom is that he’s playing injured but has had flashes of Erik Karlsson moments. Brenden Dillon, Justin Braun and Joakim Ryan round out the group.
The Avalanche received only four even-strength points from their defensemen vs. Calgary, but the group played well in front of Philipp Grubauer. Tyson Barrie (a team high 25:06 per game) and Nikita Zadorov are one pairing; with Samuel Girard returning from injury, one assumes he’ll reunite with Erik Johnson. Ian Cole and Cale Makar, the brilliant young defenseman who jumped from UMass to the playoffs, round out a group that doesn’t have the Sharks’ elite defenders but might be the deeper group. This was close. Advantage: Sharks.
Goaltending: Grubauer has been absolutely brilliant for the Avalanche since March, posting a .948 save percentage in his past 18 games. He won four straight against Calgary, with two of them coming in overtime. What the Sharks accomplish in this series could come down to which Jones shows up. Will it be the guy who made 58 saves in a double-overtime masterpiece in Game 6 or the guy who was pulled twice in three games in the middle of the series vs. Vegas? The Sharks would probably settle for “average” at this point. Advantage: Avalanche.
Health: Pavelski is doubtful for Game 1 after what the Sharks inferred was a concussion. Forward Joonas Donskoi missed Game 7 against Vegas after getting rocked with a hit by Brayden McNabb in Game 6. Forward Melker Karlsson is also questionable for the start of the series. Girard and Brassard are both expected back for Colorado after missing time in the first round. Advantage: Avalanche.
Special teams: Well, let’s begin with the giant asterisk here. The San Jose Sharks were 8-for-34 on the power play in Round 1, but that included four goals scored on that one five-minute major in Game 7. The Avalanche were 5-for-25, with Barrie getting a point on four of the five. The Avs were 17-for-22 on the kill, and San Jose was 21-for-29. In the regular season, Colorado was 26th in the NHL on the PK. Advantage: Sharks.
Coaching: Bednar has pushed a lot of the right buttons this season for the Avalanche, and clearly had a solid game plan against an explosive offense team in the Flames. His temperament is as even-keeled as the Sharks’ Pete DeBoer can be fiery. Hopefully he remains that way if and when DeBoer tries to start a little war of words, as he did late in the series with Gerard Gallant. Tactically, DeBoer did a nice job insulating Jones after his disastrous stretch. Advantage: Sharks.
Series prediction: Sharks in 7.