Starting on December 16th, the Colorado Avalanche had only four regulation wins over the next month. The team that had looked like the best in the Western Conference for the first two months of the season, had fallen out of the top-3 in the Central Division and were among a handful of mediocre teams battling for position in the Western Conference Wild Card race.
Now, the Avalanche return home having won four game in a row and seven of their last eight. They’re back to second place in the conference and are only three points behind the St. Louis Blues – with two games in hand. This is the Colorado Avalanche team that we expected to see this season. A dominant offensive group that has one of the more underrated blue lines in the NHL.
The Avalanche have been the best 5v5 team in the NHL nearly the entire year and they’re now sporting a conference best +43 goal differential on the season - a mark better than the other seven playoff teams combined.
While the special teams have left a lot to be desired this year, the power play is starting to show signs of improvement. Since the All Star game, the Avs have the third best PP in the league. Add that to their near unstoppable 5v5 play and the Avs are team that has the potential to run any opponent out of the building on a given night.
The post-All Star break success is coming in a whole new way as well. For the first time all season, Nathan MacKinnon is producing below a point per game. The 24-year old superstar is undoubtedly the team’s MVP this seasons - and among the Hart Trophy favorites - but right now he’s getting the kind of support he hasn’t seen since coming to the NHL. Andre Burakovesky is racking up multi-point games, Nazem Kadri is producing like a high end second line center and from an offensive perspective, Cale Makar is playing as well as any blue liner in the league.
And it’s not just the offense. Sure, they’re the highest scoring team in the West, but the Avalanche have been quietly turning themselves into a top defensive team as well. Since the start of 2020, the Avs are in the top-5 in the entire NHL for both goals and shots against per game. The blue line has started to shut down then shot attempts and the reduced work load has helped Philipp Grubauer play his best hockey of the season. With only five goals against in the last four games, the Avalanche are shutting teams down in a way you like to see as the playoffs near.
This is a team that is different than the lovable underdogs of the last two years. In 2018, the team shocked the hockey world by making the playoffs one year after the worst season in franchise history. Then last spring, they were able to knock off the heavily favored Calgary Flames and were one win away from making it to the Conference Finals.
Now they’re a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. They have one of the best players in the game, the presumed Calder Trophy favorite and a cast of new faces - Andre Burakovesky, Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, Val Nichushkin and P-E Bellemare - who have given the Avalanche the type of depth that most teams can only dream of.
This year’s playoffs are going to be different. The Avs are on pace to be one of the top seeds in the Conference and will be expected to make a deep run. Luckily this Avalanche team is different. They’re built for a run. Aside from a few weeks of injury-induced underwhelming play, they’ve performed as one of the best teams in the NHL. Joe Sakic has built a team that can compete in a playoff series with anyone in the league - and the scary part is given their age and asset flexibility, they have the potential to get a whole lot better.