As the NHL’s Phase IV Return to Play rapidly approaches, now is a good time to ponder on the road ahead for the Colorado Avalanche on their quest to finish out the 2019-20 season lifting the Stanley Cup.
How important is getting the number one seed in the Western Conference for the Avalanche?
Alex: With the complete unpredictability of these playoffs I really don’t think being the one seed will matter near as much. No home ice is a part of that, but also teams may randomly get hot, or a lower seeded team may be healthier then a higher seeded team. When it comes to the Avalanche’s round-robin games I want to see them get their feet underneath them and focus on the basics. Defensive systems, forechecking, etc. Being ready for a team that just played 3-5 games fighting for their lives will be imperative to the Avs success, so treating the round-robin seriously may be more important for that vs actually getting the number one seed.
Jackie: The way the league set up the playoff structure gave meaning to the round-robin matches. That way the Avalanche have a competitive focus on obtaining first in the Western Conference without the fear of elimination, of course. Once it was decided that the playoff bracket would reseed after the play-in and also each round it does give the higher ranked teams the benefit of getting a weaker opponent. That is certainly all relative in the NHL playoffs but any advantage helps.
Hardev: Starting out on the right foot, tuning yourself against three really good teams, and winning home ice for as far into the playoffs as you can, you want all of it. You want to have as much of an advantage as you can. We’ve seen from March Madness, FIFA World Cups, and other terrifyingly fast tournaments, momentum is super important. Getting in a groove early and carrying that confidence as far as you can. The Avalanche need to start hot more than home ice, but one achieves the other, so yes.
Tom: I agree with Hardev, the top seed is less important than what it would take to get it. No specific matchup in the first Playoff round really matters - bring on whichever play-in team - but the Avalanche need to shake off the rust and play well in the round robin games. So if they are able to grab the top seed, it means they are going into the round of 16 on top of their game and that should be very scary for any opponent.
Who will emerge as the Avalanche’s unexpected playoff X factor?
Tom: It’s going to be Nazem Kadri. All you have to do is mention the words “Kadri” and “playoffs” together on twitter and you’re instantly met with dozens of replies from Leafs fans bringing up his past suspensions. That isn’t going to happen this year. Naz is going to stay in the lineup and he is going to anchor a second line that will be able to both lend offensive support to Nathan MacKinnon’s line while also grinding the opponents top line into the ice.
Jackie: Andre Burakovsky has been practicing as of late on the top line with MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen giving the Avalanche a different option going into the playoffs. If Burakovsky can continue his momentum from the regular season where he scored a career high 20 goals then that just fortifies the Avalanche attack. Burakovsky tends to score in bunches so a hot streak could have a major impact.
Hardev: I’ll pick Valeri Nichushkin. Depth is so important in the playoffs, because when the stars are locked in battle against each other, you need someone down the lineup who can break through and make the difference. The goalie can be that kind of player, but it could also be a forward to score those important goals early and late (and every time in between).
Which play-in series are you most looking forward to?
Tom: I could lie to you all and say something different, but my answer is the Toronto/Columbus series.
Alex: The Winnipeg/Calgary series is one I want to keep an eye on. Not only because it’s two Canadian teams going head-to-head, but also because it’ll be interesting to see how a best 3/5 lends itself to a team. Winnipeg has a very weak defense core but easily the best goalie in the series. Will jumping right back into things favor a team like them whose strength relies on more offense and goaltending rather than solid defensive systems? On the other side, the Flames are a team that could have a lot resting on this. If they get bounced before the round of 16 it seems likely enough that big changes could come this summer. Seeing how the team works together will be interesting.
Jackie: Both of the aforementioned 8/9 seed matches look like very competitive and entertaining series. That said, I am oddly drawn to the Edmonton/Chicago clash. Maybe because it might be the most wide open offense out of the gate and to see how Chicago’s young roster handles Edmonton’s firepower. I also love (except Carolina/New York Rangers) that all the play-in series are non-divisional.
Hardev: A lot of players in Montreal vs. Pittsburgh have had COVID-19 scares this week (over 12). One team, Montreal, really wants that first overall pick. The other, Pittsburgh, had their captain desperately threaten his teammates so they can have another chance at the Cup. Considering how wild and unpredictable the playoffs are, I feel like this series could swing one way or another hard and there’s no in-between. Imagine a Montreal win, even though they don’t want to, or Pittsburgh blowing them out of the water for three games straight. I want to see that.
What chances do you give the Avalanche to win it all?
Jackie: They have as good of a shot as anyone to complete the 16 win mission. A little injury luck would come in handy at this point but the Avalanche have the pieces to get it done. Hopefully Jared Bednar and his staff came up with some solutions to bolster their 19th ranked power play and 13th ranked penalty kill during the pause, however.
Hardev: They have a much better chance this year compared to previous years considering how the playoff format has changed. I wrote about how it advantages the teams with a bye through the Play-In a few weeks ago. I wonder if they can get through the lower teams more cleanly than their opponent they’ll have a great chance once the Conference Finals come around. I’d say roughly a 10% chance.
Tom: The Avalanche are the betting favorite in Vegas to win the Stanley Cup and rightfully so. The team was only two points out of first in the Western Conference while playing all season without key members of the lineup. Now, healthy and will the full lineup Joe Sakic envisioned last summer, this Avalanche team has a legitimate chance to win another Cup.