Before this NHL season began, hockey analysts and executives picked the Colorado Avalanche to go far in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Six months later, the Avs are the league’s top team, with a superb 52-14-6 record and 110 standings points. Right now, they’re in the midst of a six-game win streak – and if that doesn’t impress you, consider that this is their second six-game win streak of the season, and it’s not even their best run, as they peeled off 10 wins in a row starting in mid-January.
Now consider that Colorado has lost more than two games in a row just once this year – and that was at the very beginning of the season, when they lost three straight games. And if that doesn’t blow your mind, consider that two of their best players – forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog – have played only 56 and 51 games respectively.
If you don’t think all roads to the Cup in the Western Conference go through Denver, you’re fooling yourself. Avalanche GM Joe Sakic has built an incredible lineup, and as Calgary head coach Darryl Sutter said so well last month, the opponent who winds up in the second wild-card spot in the West is going to have a waste of eight days in the first round when they get demolished by the Avs.
No team is perfect, of course. With an average of 3.76 goals-for-per game, the Avalanche don’t generate as much offense as Florida (4.15) and Toronto (3.82). And their defense isn’t the best in the game, either; their goals-against average of 2.74 is sixth in the league. The same goes for their special teams: their power-play success percentage of 25.0 is fifth in the NHL, and their penalty kill percentage of 79.0 is tied with the Panthers for 14th overall.
However, the Avs are more than the sum of their parts. Head coach Jared Bednar has done everything asked of him, and although the Panthers may catch Colorado and win the President’s Trophy as the best regular-season team, the second-best team in the West – Sutter’s Flames – are a whopping 13 points behind them. The team that has to take them on in Round One – likely one of the Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, Vegas Golden Knights – probably are getting rag-dolled in short order.
Sometimes, we forget how much the Avalanche still have to prove. They haven’t made it past the second round of the playoffs since the 2001-02 campaign when they got to the Western Final before losing to Detroit in seven games. But that is not a drawback, but a motivation for their core of talent. They’re not the youngest team anymore – they’ve got an average age of 27.8 years – but they’re not close to the end of their competitive cycle. To the contrary: with youngsters like defenseman Cale Makar (23), winger Miko Rantanen (25), and MacKinnon (26), they’re set up to be dominant for a very long time.
There are many teams in the West, including the Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, Flames and Edmonton Oilers, who can give the Avs a run for their money. But Colorado is going to be the favorite no matter who they play, no matter which round they’re in. They’ve earned that reputation by being the most consistently terrific group in the sport.
This is what makes the wild card race in the West so intriguing – nobody wants to be Colorado’s opponent. Everybody knows what the Avalanche are capable of. There’s always some possibility of an upset, but it’s more likely that the second wild card team is going to be emotionally and competitively upset after the Avalanche are through with them.
If your team draws the Avs at any point this post-season, prepare for a thrashing. You’re getting a leviathan of a team, and the odds are deservedly going to be heavily in Colorado’s favor.