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Playoff Flurries: Avalanche down but not out, Leafs quickly imploding

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The Avalanche are slowly gaining their playoff footing, unlike a few other teams so far this year

Colorado Avalanche v Nashville Predators - Game Two Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

It’s always interesting to consider the debate over ‘underdogs’ in the postseason, because - by and large - the majority of teams that make the playoffs do so because they’re one of the teams in the top half of the league for the year. At very best, the underdogs are the teams that barely squeak in, and only really when they face the teams that dominated the season from start to finish.

Of course, ironically enough, that’s exactly what the Avs are this year. What’s up, underdog living? [For more on that, by the way, MHH newcoming Jon Miller wrote a pretty nifty piece.]

Colorado has been walking wounded from start to finish this year, losing a key player in nearly every game of the season at one point or another. Nathan MacKinnon, Tyson Barrie, Erik Johnson, Semyon Varlamov, and Jonathan Bernier - all the people you very much don’t want to lose - have been injured at one point or another, and practically half the supporting cast have sat some games out here and there as well.

They’re coming off the league’s worst season in decades (literally), and the retooling they did over the summer is still showing a bit in their lack of established team chemistry and somewhat weak scoring depth.

On the other side of the ice, they’re facing the Nashville Predators - a team that nearly won the Stanley Cup last year and is a strong favorite to actually pull it off this time around. The Avalanche aren’t necessarily a legitimate opponents in the minds of some, but rather a rest stop on the road to their bloody, seven-game series against Boston Tampa Pittsburgh again.

That, in all fairness, actually makes what we’ve seen from the two teams so far quite fun.

For stretches of each game, it appears as if the Predators are playing a game of cat-and-mouse with Colorado, allowing them to get just close enough to taste a win before making sure that they understand who’s going to be sweeping the series.

And sure enough, the Predators took both games at home, joining Las Vegas, Tampa Bay, Boston, and Winnipeg in sweeping their first two-game homestand in the opening round of the postseason. Only one team has split their home series (Pittsburgh, who dominated game one before getting destroyed in game two at PPG Paints Arena), while the Capitals still have Game 2 to play on Sunday and the Anaheim Ducks impressively GOT swept despite having home ice advantage to start.

In each of the other three home sweep series, though, things have been almost laughably lopsided (we’ll get more into that later). Like the Anaheim series, where the Ducks had the motivation of home ice to help them at least challenge San Jose, the Avalanche have managed to at least put up a fight for a period or more in each of their two losses so far. And don’t buy the toying theory; with Colorado heading for their own two-game home ice stint and the playoffs-ending injury to Kevin Fiala just one season ago, the Predators would be absolutely foolish to even chance an accidental upset. As much as we joke that teams throw a bone here and there, fans need to look no further than the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2013 run to remember: You can be up 4-1 in the third period of game seven, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to win. Given how much of hockey is luck, let’s be clear; any strong showings the Avalanche had were earned by them and them alone.

If you missed game two, here’s the official recap for the 5-4 loss from Saturday night. [Mile High Hockey]

Oh - and in case any of us needed reminding, Nathan MacKinnon is a freak:

Unreal.

Here’s a look, by the way, at what should have been taken away from Game 2 as the Avalanche head home. [Mile High Sports]

As we deal with life without Samuel Girard, here’s a piece from last week on why he’s been such a nice addition this year. [Denver Post]

And to be fair to the opponent, here’s an awesome look from teammate Ryan Ellis as to why Pekka Rinne should (and really, he will) win the Vezina this year. [Player’s Tribune]

Now, for the other games from Saturday.

Hoo boy.

For starters, the New Jersey Devils finally realized that Keith Kinkaid is, well, Keith Kinkaid, and they yanked him after allowing five goals on 15 shots to put in their normal starter, Cory Schneider.

Normally, that would be fine-just-fine, but take a look at the stat at the top of this screen grab:

He ended up stopping all 10 shots he faced down the final 24 minutes of the game, and the Devils scored two unanswered goals to cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 5-3 while Schneider was in net.

Still, they’ll head home not only with a 2-0 series deficit, but with some uncertainty in net and an inexperienced playoff group - who haven’t had quite the dominant stretches that Colorado have.

Then again, they aren’t in quite as bad a shape as Toronto.

Toronto dropped their opening game of their series against the Boston Bruins 5-1, then came back on Saturday night to... drop their second game 7-3, including a hat trick and six points by Czech wizard David Pastrnak and more weirdness than any series should allow.

Nazem Kadri is out for three games with suspension, and Brad Marchand is busy hunting down Leo Komarov to lick him again (yes, insanely, the ‘again’ was both intentional and accurate).

Meanwhile, Pastrnak was out there doing this:

While Toronto forward Kasperi Kapanen was out there doing this:

Freddie Andersen, who was played as often as Mike Babcock was allowed to play him, was yanked after three early goals, then career backup Curtis McElhinney proceeded to let in four more.

Maybe they can come back, but Toronto is looking both dead in the water and a little weird. Then again, that may be what they’re trying to do...

Finally, the Anaheim Ducks (who were swept at home to start their own series) have been keeping things relatively close, but may lose one of their own key players for being scum:

Already given a two-minute penalty, Perry may try to argue that he thought Karlsson had the puck when he delivered the massive hit. But if he gets slapped with a nice hefty suspension as one of the league’s repeat offenders, well, things won’t look that great for the Ducks as they head to the SAP Center for games three and four.

Finally, I’ll end with a little reminder that at the end of the day, there’s so much more than the final score of the game:

If you aren’t on social media or have somehow missed what happened last week, a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos Junior-’A’ hockey team in Saskatchewan collided with a semi, killing 16 passengers and critically injuring a number of others. No one walked away from the wreckage of the bus uninjured, and a hockey team - full of teenagers and young men playing the game they loved - has just had their world completely upended.

Half their team is gone, including their head coach Darcy Haugan, athletic trainer (and only female member of the team) Dayna Brons, team broadcaster Tyler Bieber, and statistician Brody Hinz.

A tragedy of that size is always hard to comprehend, but the situation perhaps makes it even harder.

When the Chapecoense soccer team in Brazil heartbreakingly saw nearly their entire roster perish in a plane crash during their Cinderella playoff run in 2016, the world mourned - but few were able to truly relate to the situation the players, who were on a private charter plane to their game, were in. With the Humboldt tragedy this month, a significant part of the devastation is because of what those junior team bus rides represent.

Chances are, most of you reading this had to take a bus ride with a sports team at some point during your middle or high school athletic careers. And as rabid sports fans, I’m willing to bet that even those of you who didn’t deal with those long pre- and post-game hours on the bus as a team member likely rode the bus with some other extracurricular; band, drumline, student spirit squads, you name it.

If you’ve been on those buses, you know what they mean to a teenager. They’re a bonding experience, when it’s just you and your teammates hyping each other up before a game or winding down after. You watch the same movies, share headphones, and sleep on each other’s shoulders for the late-night journeys, because the windows shake so much from the crappy minor state roads that leaning against them rattles your brain right out of your skull. Those bus trips are a safe haven, away from parents and fans and other friends for just a few hours. Most of us would give anything to go back to those - and so we know just how much security was ripped from the survivors in Humboldt when their safe haven became their nightmare.

There’s no quick way to sign off, but I liked Drake’s tribute here. Simple, unifying gesture; just a jersey. Just showing he’s there for them too.