There is no real way of doing this story without having fan-bias. I accept that as a premise, but I do genuinely believe the title from both a hockey perspective and as a fan. I think the Avs are situated extremely well to defeat the Wild and further I think they have a very good chance to win the Stanley Cup. I think this team can win the Stanley Cup.
There are a myriad of different areas that went into my conclusion but I want to highlight a few of the bigger ones…
The Avs play a very fast system and play very well in faster, up-tempo games. Over the course of the season, it seems that the slower games are the ones where the Avs cannot find their rhythm. I could speak ad nauseam on Roy’s system but briefly here is why I think it will succeed in the playoffs.
Forwards: The Avs, even without Duchene, have a potent top 6 that currently boasts four 20-goal scorers (fucking McGinn couldn’t get another one) and their second leading scorer from last year just came back from injury. This is all without one of the best players in the league in Duchene being hurt and possibly returning later in the series. These guys flourish in high paced games and every game in the playoffs seems to be high paced, or higher paced.
Defense: The defense on paper sucks. Hejda should be healthy, which helps, but the defense should suck. It doesn’t because of Roy’s system. They limit shots from the outside. I understand the Corsi and Fenwick arguments, but I believe that Roy’s system works for this defense and there is no reason for me to believe that it will suddenly collapse at games 83 through 87. Clearly the system needs to work as usual, but I think it might succeed even better in the playoffs because of (a) it’s a small sample size (granted that could go the other way) and (b) other teams will start pressing more when their 30-35 shots from the outside are all mostly stopped because of the pressure of the playoffs. I think teams will start pressing under the increased pressure and that leads to turnovers and that leads to the Avs getting counter-opportunities.
Belief:This is something I am sure Justin Bourne, who I highly regard, will disagree with but I have played a lot of competitive hockey in my life. Not at the same level as him of course and there as aspects I fully defer to him on, but I do disagree with him at times. However, if someone like him tries to argue that “belief” doesn’t exist he is flat out lying; likely in attempt to seem more journalistic, more tangible, more modern, and perhaps less “old-school.”
Regardless, belief exists and it is a powerful, powerful force. In some ways it can be connected with confidence; I think that they are connected but different. Most athletes are confident, they have to be. However, players and teams that believe in themselves have something more. They have a deeper kind of confidence to not doubt their actions, to not hesitate, to take chances, to not give in, to ignore bad bounces or breaks, to fight a little bit harder, to push yourself a tiny but more. This team simply believes. They believe in themselves, in their system, in their coach, they believe they can overcome injuries like Duchene, and they believe than can beat everyone and win every game.
The feeling is palpable. Not in the cocky, over confident way, but this unique, fun, enjoyable, almost overly real sense of just pure belief. Like destiny is behind them. They’ve shut up every doubter they had and not only did they shut them up, but they fed them a 10-course meal of crow when they won the whole fucking division instead of just making the playoffs. Roy and Allaire didn’t help Varly, they turned his season into a Vezina and Hart worthy season (even if for one year).
There is belief in this team and when they start losing a game they will believe they can come back. If they get down because of a bad bounce, they will believe they are not out. They believe nothing can stop them and that confidence, that sense of trust, in their success usually comes (as we’ll hear with regard to the Blackhawks all month) from repetitive success in the postseason. They already bloody have it and I think that will carry more weight and yield success not just in the first round but the entire playoffs. I believe that belief can win them a Cup-they sure as hell believe it.
Little needs to be said. He’s succeeded at every level: AHL, NHL, New Team, Junior Coaching, and now NHL coaching. He just wins. Not only does he win, he inspires his team as a coach and player unlike any person I have ever seen. He took the worst team in the conference last year to a division title. He inspires these players like a hero inspiring an army.
More tangibly now, he also is a damn good coach who has shown how to adjust before and during games to a variety of every changing situations. He and his staff have adjusted the PP and PK to be flexible and adaptive. He has created an impressive infrastructure of coaching, video monitoring, and game reviews to be prepared for each game and opposing team. Though I think it is underappreciated by fans, this all played a role in the Avs’ success this year and now he gets to turn his attention to one team for 4 to 7 games instead of 3 teams in a week.
He also knows how to win and every NHL player, though some fans like to be condescending about this concept, will tell you how vital it is to have Championship and Stanley Cup experience in the locker room. The Avs have that in Giguere and Talbot and others but they also have the greatest Stanley Cup performers probably of all time as their coach.
Every good playoff team wins on the back of a goalie. Sometimes teams can overcome mediocre goaltending performances, but it’s so, so rare. This year the Avs have one of the best and he’s also fairly rested. To be fair, sometimes a team can rely too much on their goalie (Rangers, Bruins last year once injuries kicked in) but there is no reason for me to doubt Varly.
Varly, like the rest of the Avs, has done well in high intensity games and for some reason, whether logical or not, does better when the Avs let up a lot of shots. Not exactly the Russian roulette (ha ha ha) you want to play all the time, but Varly has succeeded all season and I do not see why it won’t continue.
Added to this is the fact that his coach happens to just be there to offer support and that coach is someone who can uniquely offer advice when needed; also a Conn Smythe winning back up helping out as well. Varly has support; a lot of support. That is not something to be taken lightly, especially if the Avs proceed deeper into the playoffs.
MacKinnon:The more asked of this kid, the more he has to give. He seems un-phased by everything, throughout his hockey life. He has that Crosby-like nature to him. There is no tangible proof to this, but I believe he’s the ace in the Avs’ hole. I think his game has the chance to increase to a more elite level when the pressure is on. He’s done it before and if I am right his performance, with that addition of Duchene later, can take this team to the Cup.
The Altitude: The Avs’ rather surprising rise to Central Champions yields a potentially enormous gift. Home ice is always great, the home crowd, the better sleep etc. But for the Avs it gives them the gift of altitude. Though it doesn’t always have an effect, you will definitely hear players comment on it. If a series goes to 7 games, at least the first two rounds for sure, the Avs will get that last game at home. That tiny, or at least seemingly tiny difference, could be the difference in less energy an opposing player has to make a better shot or play better defense.
Speaking directly to the first round match up, let’s do a brief primer on the Minnesota Wild’s system:
Sorry, I needed to be a little snarky to combat the Hockey Wilderness post Monday. Seriously though, the Wild play a defensive, slower system than teams like the Avs or Blackhawks. It’s not the same trap-game that we are accustomed to, though it can devolve into that when they take the lead.
The Wild’s system is focused on preventing shots (top 10 in shots against per game) but also doesn’t produce a lot (bottom two in the league). So, you have a team that focuses and succeeds on fewer scoring chances in a game than in the typical “barn burner” type games the Avs might find themselves in more often than not.
The Wild’s type of game can clearly succeed when executed well. They will try to slow the Avs down and capitalize on chances. With Koivu, Parise, and Granlund they have the forwards who could do that. However, their game needs the pace to be slower in order to capitalize on mistakes and turnovers; their system is not made for three periods of back and forth play. That is where I see positivity for the Avs.
Playoffs games are rarely slow and the energy of the playoffs adds a level of, well, energy to each game. It’s hard to pull a 2000’s era Devils and slow the game down for an entire series. I think that hurts the Wild’s game plan and benefits’ the Avs immensely. The Avs have flourished in faster games and in fact it seems that the more intense the game, the better the Avs play. I don’t believe I could find an “intense game” metric but perhaps there are some examples that could aggregate into seeing this: e.g. their 1-goal game record, their overtime win record, the fact they’ve beaten every team, etc.
The Wild are also not deep at forward. They have a good top 6 and a good defense, but they need Parise and Koivu to score a lot. Further, if Bryz doesn’t post a GAA of around 2.00, a team with only two 20-goal scorers might be in trouble to find offense.
I think this all adds up to the fact that the Wild’s system and forward core, though good and difficult to beat at times, is hurt by playing a fast team in a high intensity playoff series (there is a history between these teams, let’s not forget). The Wild defense can be smothering, exhausting and good, but they need to be able to shut down the Avs top 6 for 4 games. Not even St. Louis during the regular season could beat the Avs 4 times (this was meant as a semi-joke).
Duchene is hurt and maybe Mitchell for some of the games. I could go at length at the effects of this, but it demolishes the Avs’ depth at Center. It could be a deciding factor or it could not. If the Avs move past Minnesota, it looks likely Mitchell returns and then Duchene becomes more likely.
I believe the Avs are not only poised to win this series against Minnesota, but I believe they have a legitimate chance at the Stanley Cup. I think their game fits well against Minnesota in the 1st round, which is huge. That will give them even more confidence if they win. Then, they will likely get healthier (granted other injuries could occur) and face other battle-tested teams. However, they will likely face teams that will have gone through potential death matches. That could play into their hands.
I think they Avs this year have something special. I think that belief and confidence and of course a spectacular goalie gives them a unique opportunity. I think they think they can win and to me, however homer-ish it may be, I think they believe it a little bit more than most teams. The playoffs are always a crapshoot in some ways and there are some stats that present troubling potential outcomes, but I think everything fits for them.
And lastly, Roy just seems to win everything the first time he has a chance to do so. To me, and of course there is no scientific proof to this, I don’t believe it is coincidence that he has succeeded the way he has and won the AHL Championship in his first try, the Stanley Cup (and Conn Smythe) in his first try, the Stanley Cup with the Avs in his first try, the Memorial Cup in his first try as Coach, and the Central Division in his first try as coach.
Why not them? I have no answer to that question.