The Colorado Avalanche were one of the last playoff teams to punch their ticket last spring, coming down to the wire as both they and the Arizona Coyotes out west battled to take the second Western Conference Wild Card spot all the way through to Game 81.
The Avalanche ultimately won out and earned the right to play the Playoff Cinderella role, but on Saturday night they’ll face off against a Coyotes team boasting a handful of key new faces and riding high from a dominant win over the Vegas Golden Knights in Glendale on Thursday.
With a narrowly-missed playoff spot still fresh in their minds and a fanbase they’re desperate to keep pleasing, the Coyotes — like the Bruins on Thursday — won’t be an easy team to face as Colorado looks to keep their undefeated streak alive.
Clayton Keller - Derek Stepan - Phil Kessel
Barret Hayton - Christian Dvorak - Nick Schmaltz
Christian Fischer - Carl Soderberg - Conor Garland
Vinnie Hinostroza - Brad Richardson - Michael Grabner
Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Jason Demers
Alex Goligoski - Niklas Hjalmarsson
Jordan Oesterle - Jakob Chychrun
After scoring just one goal in their first two combined regular season games, the Coyotes offense finally opened up in their 4-1 home ice win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night.
A familiar face for the Avalanche was instrumental in their victory, as Carl Soderberg was pivotal in three of their four goals scored on Thursday night. He got a slow start in Arizona while centering Nick Schmaltz and Conor Garland, but some quick re-tooling of the lines after their first two losses helped him and Garland gel with grinder Christian Fischer instead - and it resulted in a two-goal game for the undersized Garland and Niklas Hjalmarsson’s first goal in over a year.
The final goal was scored by Nick Schmaltz, who was another of Arizona’s injury-plagued players last year and is coming back from over eight months without game action. If Arizona continues to see their depth scoring pick up, the quality shots taken by Phil Kessel and his line — who have only scored one goal so far, but taken the majority of the shot attempts for the Coyotes through three games — could end up being a legitimate challenge for Colorado.
Arizona’s defense is the exact same corps they boasted last year, which is both good and bad for Colorado. The good news is that veterans like Alex Goligoski and Niklas Hjalmarsson have another year of wear and tear on their skates, but the bad news is that it means they’ve been fantastic at suppressing quality opportunities through their first three games — they’ve only allowed four goals in those three contests. Colorado will have to truly give their best showing to remain undefeated.
Gabriel Landeskog - Nathan MacKinnon - Mikko Rantanen
Andre Burakovsky - Nazem Kadri - Joonas Donskoi
Matt Nieto - Tyson Jost - Colin Wilson
Matt Calvert - PE Bellemare - Val Nichushkin
Sam Girard - Erik Johnson
Nikita Zadorov - Cale Makar
Ryan Graves - Mark Barberio
Gabriel Landeskog missed practice yesterday with what was described as a “minor injury”, but head coach Jared Bednar confirmed that the lineup will replicate what the team iced on Thursday night — so we can safely assume that the captain is good to go once again.
The Avalanche, like the Coyotes, have benefited from having their depth scoring contribute while their stars get warmed up — particularly Nathan MacKinnon, who took three games to score his first goal. The team, overall, has been much stronger offensively than teir upcoming opponents, though; Kessel is still waiting on his first goal and has one point, for example, while MacKinnon’s goal ‘drought’ still came with four assists to give him five points in three games so far.
Unlike Arizona, the Avalanche won’t have a player from their opponent’s former roster ready to face off for them; Kevin Connauton, the defender who came over to Colorado in the Carl Soderberg trade, was waived at the start of the season and has only played so far in Loveland. He’s back up with the NHL club, but don’t expect him to draw in for the Avalanche; although their defense still has some growing to do, he wouldn’t help them much more than anyone they already have on their roster.
Colorado will obviously hope that their well-rounded scoring depth will continue to show off against Arizona, but the top line has typically been the most lethal in the past against this particular Coyotes corps. As long as they can continue to dominate against Arizona’s strongest players, it could be an easy win against a team desperate to pull to a .500 points percentage.
Both teams will be using Saturday night to test out their number two options between the pipes, although the circumstances that Antti Raanta for Arizona and Pavel Francouz for Colorado are bringing to the table are starkly different.
Raanta is entering his third year as a member of the Arizona Coyotes, with 153 career NHL games and a .920 save percentage between them, the New York Rangers, and the Chicago Blackhawks. He hasn’t played in a regular season NHL game in 11 months, though, thanks to a pair of injuries that ended his 2018-19 season in late November. He has a historically good reputation, but his only game action since that season-ending injury last year has come in a single AHL game played last week on a quick conditioning stint. Unfortunately for Colorado, that solo game saw him post an easy-looking shutout — so the Avalanche will have to hope that there’s still a bit of an adjustment curve he needs before he’s back in top-tier NHL game form.
For Colorado, Francouz doesn’t have any injury concerns like Raanta. But the knock against him, at the moment, is that he doesn’t have the NHL experience; he played in part of two games last year and has only faced 35 total shots at the regular season NHL level. The good news for him, of course, is that those two relief performances were stellar; he combined to make 33 saves and boasts a .943 save percentage through those first 61 minutes of NHL game action, to go with the team’s best AHL performance in years this past season. But like Raanta currently carries a question mark around his health, there’s no real way to deny that Francouz still carries a question mark around his experience — and he’ll have to prove those don’t belong against a hungry club that scored one of those two goals against him last year already.