After a Game 2 where they were convincingly outplayed in a building in which they have lost nine regular season games the last two years, the elephant in the room was so unsubtle that calling it an elephant didn’t do its largesse justice. After ceding home ice advantage (temporarily) to the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon spoke openly about his immensely talented team’s baggage with the second round ever since Cale Makar came to town.
Nathan MacKinnon: "We were really bad tonight."— Peter Baugh (@Peter_Baugh) May 20, 2022
"Years past, we might dwell on it and get down on ourselves and each other. But we've just got to pick each other up and move on."
Games 3 and 4 in St. Louis were a test of what Mackinnon was asserting. In year’s past, they may have dwelled on their mistakes and lost their composure when the Blues gave them every reason to do so, but this year, they passed all challenges thrown their way with flying colors.
Game 3 was a veteran workmanlike victory, as they weathered the opening storm and yet another lucky Blues bounce, won the game with a dominant second period, then slammed the door shut down the stretch.
Game 4 proved how both the Avalanche and one of their stars, Nazem Kadri, have grown out of their youthful missteps and blossomed into dominant forces few NHL teams are equipped to handle. Kadri’s past playoff suspensions have been documented ad nauseum and the story of him becoming a more disciplined player is years old at this point, but this game was Kadri’s masterpiece in his continuing ascent into the hockey player so many people believed he could be. He had every reason to lose his composure, beginning with the torrent of racist threats that Kadri correctly and depressingly summarized as “it’s a big deal, I try to act like it’s not.”
On the ice, the Blues and David Perron threw every cheap shot in the book at him—including a post-goal elbow that had it landed on Kadri’s temple where Perron intended it to, would have surely resulted in an historic suspension—but because NHL “Player Safety” has proven itself to be an oxymoron, Perron will likely suit up for Game 5 despite spending a significant part of last night’s second period completely abandoning hockey to try to put Kadri’s safety in jeopardy.
It would have been entirely understandable for Kadri to react to any one of the Blues’ escalating cheap shots with some violence of his own, but he didn’t let himself get sucked into their extremely dangerous game seemingly designed to get him out of this series one way or another. Between the sucker punch after getting cross checked to the ice and the late elbow directed at his head, had St. Louis not scored a power play goal that forced them to abandon their goonery and actually try to play hockey at 4-2, that game could have taken a very dark turn for the Avs and Nazem Kadri.
Instead of sinking to Perron’s level, Kadri stayed focused on hockey and scored his first career playoff hat trick, afterwards telling a national TV audience “for those that hate, that one’s for them.”
For the rest of the Avalanche, they were also faced with adversity that could have sparked those “here we go again” thoughts that so many Avs fans terrorized ourselves with after Game 2. A bad early turnover by Devon Toews left Perron wide open in front of the net, and yet again the Avs gave the Blues a head start in this series. Instead of letting that mistake lead them down the frustrating path to Game 2, where they allowed the Blues to dictate play and own the low slot, they replicated Game 1—where the Blues also scored an early goal off an Avalanche defensive zone turnover, and then Colorado nuked them off the Corsi chart.
The difference between Game 4 and Game 1 is that more Avs shots went on the goal side of the post in Game 4—and also Nazem Kadri—but they were largely the same story of complete Colorado dominance interrupted by St. Louis’s elite power play making the game look closer than it was. The Blues had a counter-punch for nearly every one the Avalanche threw, but Colorado was able to maintain their focus on the road and get the game back on their terms each time the Blues scored.
One of these squads is a serious Stanley Cup contender, and the other is a team who cost themselves a must-win game at home by gooning it up on a guy who didn’t do anything and going down two men, then having said guy who didn’t do anything score the game-winning goal just seconds after they thought they had completed the biggest penalty kill of the series. Only one team looked like they were not ready for prime time in these past two games and it sure as heck wasn’t the Avalanche.