The Colorado Avalanche were flying high at the start of the season, thrashing any opponent that dared pose a challenge. And for a while, nobody wanted to face the deadly trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, three of the NHL's top scorers throughout the first half of the season.
But after kicking off the month of December with a six-game winning streak, Colorado's season quickly began to spiral. The Avs failed to win consecutive games until mid-February, suffering six- and eight-game losing skids before they could string two victories together.
All season, Colorado's hopes and dreams have rested on the shoulders of their top line, but the perils of relying heavily on one line became all too apparent when both Rantanen and Landeskog went down with upper-body injuries, the former sidelined for the past two games while the latter has been out since early March. Colorado's defense corps has been a mess all season, secondary scoring has been a concern and goaltender Semyon Varlamov was simply too much of a liability to carry the team down the stretch.
Yet, Colorado has managed to remain in the playoff conversation, and with a 6-3-1 record over the past 10 games, the Avalanche are outperforming their closest opponents as the season winds down. Tied with the Arizona Coyotes for the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference with 81 points apiece, Colorado holds the tiebreaker and thus the final berth, all the while sitting two points ahead of the Minnesota Wild and three behind the Dallas Stars, who own the first wild-card spot.
A major factor in Colorado's recent success has been the strong goaltending of Phillip Grubauer, and his uptick in performance couldn't have come at a better time as Varlamov's days as a starting goaltender appear to be over. His 19-18-9 record through 47 games is among the worst marks in the NHL for a starting netminder, and his .910 save percentage and 2.86 goals-against average are pedestrian, at best. Grubauer, on the other hand, holds a 5-1-1 record with two shutouts, a .965 SP and 1.14 GAA in his past seven starts, giving him the best numbers of any goalie over the past three weeks. Named the NHL's third star of the week for March 18-24, Grubauer was always a useful backup during his days with the Washington Capitals, and he's starting to come into his own in Colorado after a slow start. With a season record of 15-9-4, Grubauer has done enough to keep the Avalanche in the playoff race after it became clear Varlamov was too risky to rely on.
And in the absence of Colorado's two star wingers, the Avs have needed a committee of players to pick up the slack, and the middle-six talent has stepped up. Colin Wilson, who has had a tough tenure in Colorado, has registered four points in the past four games, while offensive blueliner Tyson Barrie has been a point-per-game player in his past six outings, bringing him to nine points in 12 games since the beginning of March. In the past six games, left wingers Sven Andrighetto and Alex Kerfoot have four and three points, respectively, while defensemen Samuel Girard and Ian Cole have chipped in with a handful of points each, too. This is to say that it's not one player, but rather a group of players, who are stepping up in the absence of Landeskog and Rantanen. In fact, the depth of the lineup has produced enough to help the Avalanche to three straight wins last week without a single point from MacKinnon, who is Colorado's leading scorer with 92 points in 76 games, the second-highest point total of his career.
Big contests against Arizona and the Vegas Golden Knights this week will test the Avalanche's resiliency after important victories against fellow wild-card contenders such as the Chicago Blackhawks, Stars and Wild over the past several days. Colorado's fight to stay alive won't be easy, but the Avs have done just enough to keep themselves in the hunt with time winding down – and there's hope that Rantanen and Landeskog can return before the end of the regular season and provide the boost that makes it two straight playoff berths for the Avs.