It didn’t get the same mention as the Columbus Blue Jackets’ shocking sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Colorado Avalanche’s five-game ousting of the Calgary Flames was inarguably the second-biggest upset of the opening round.
Surprising about the series, however, wasn’t just that the Avalanche won, nor that they won in five games. An underdog making quick work of a top-seeded team has happened before and it will happen again. But what was much more rare was the way in which the lower-seeded Colorado defeated an opponent that some believed was the best team in the entire Pacific Division and a potential Stanley Cup finalist. Save Game 1, the lone contest the Flames won, the Avalanche controlled the flow of the series, owned the puck and quieted Calgary’s lethal offense. To a casual observer, Colorado would have appeared to be the supposed juggernaut, not the other way around.
As they enter their second round series against the San Jose Sharks, though, the Avalanche again enter as the underdog, and for many of the same reasons they were considered the second-best of the two sides against the Flames.
The Sharks, who snuck out of the first round and past the Vegas Golden Knights on the strength of Barclay Goodrow’s Game 7 overtime winner, are almost a mirror image of the Flames, a possession giant with a lethal offense and a roster, on paper, that is considerably better than the one Colorado will ice when the series starts Friday evening. And if the season series is to be believed, there’s little reason to have faith in the Avalanche’s ability to make their stay in the second round an extended one. The Sharks were a perfect 3-0-0 in the three-game set, outscoring Colorado 14-9 and boasting the better underlying numbers of the two teams, including a 52.4 Corsi percentage, 51.1 shots percentage, 56.9 scoring chances percentage and 58.5 goals for percentage.
But here’s the thing: if the first round taught us anything – and maybe anything about these Avalanche, in particular – it’s that the season series means squat.
Consider that during the regular season, the Flames also went a perfect 3-0-0 against the Avalanche, outscored Colorado 14-10 and had underlying numbers that leaned heavily in the their favor. Calgary had a 56.5 Corsi percentage at 5-on-5 in the season series, as well as a 56.5 scoring chances percentage and 56.3 goals for percentage. The two teams were level in shots percentage. Yet, those numbers shifted in the Avalanche’s favor in the post-season as they frustrated the Flames’ attack and shredded Calgary’s defense. The result? Colorado finished the series with 54.9 Corsi percentage, 55.8 shots percentage, 57.5 scoring chances percentage and 66.7 goals for percentage. And it’s when taking that into consideration that one can’t help but wonder if the Avalanche already have the blueprint in place for giving the Sharks all they can handle.
What Colorado’s game was built on in the first round, more than anything else, was frustrating the Calgary offense and limiting the opportunities the Flames had to break through the middle of the ice with speed. Matching that with a dogged forecheck, the Avalanche were able to force turnovers and transform those into scoring chances of their own. And against a San Jose outfit that excels in many of the same areas as the Calgary team Colorado ousted in the opening round, it stands to reason that the Avalanche will be able to take the same tack, suffocating the Sharks through the neutral zone and attacking with speed in order to force turnovers and control the run of play.
It’s more than pure systems play that can make this a much more evenly matched series than the regular season outcomes would suggest, though.
Yes, Colorado is the underdog, but the Avalanche enter the series with Nathan MacKinnon, who is undeniably the best player on either side. MacKinnon torched the Flames for three goals and eight points in Round 1 and was lethal each time he touched the ice. In five games, he was credited with 17 shots, 29 shot attempts, 19 scoring chances, five high-danger chances – and that’s only at five-a-side. MacKinnon’s post-season profile should strike fear into the hearts of any defense tasked with stopping him, too. In 18 games, he has eight goals and 24 points. Though an admittedly small sample, his 1.33 points per game is the best mark of the 225 players to play at least 18 post-season games in the post-lockout era. He could feast on the Sharks, who have allowed 3.57 goals against per game, the most of any team left standing.
As much as MacKinnon is a game-changer, though, the series will likely hinge on the play of Philipp Grubauer, who has been among the hottest goaltenders in the NHL over the past several weeks. After closing out the season with a .948 save percentage and three shutouts in his final 16 appearances, Grubauer posted an excellent .939 SP in the first round. He added to that with a playoff-best .966 SP and 4.28 goals-saved above average at 5-on-5, as well as a .941 SP on the few high-danger chances against the Avalanche did allow. It should be noted again that Grubauer did all of this against a Flames offense that finished second in regular season scoring, a mark Calgary shared with – would you look at that – San Jose.
Will any of that change the perception of Colorado as the underdog? Give the series prognostications or betting lines a look and you’ll get your answer. The Avalanche aren’t favored to move on beyond this round. But if there’s any team is primed to deliver in upset in Round 2, Colorado is the club that can do it and they showed exactly why in the opening round.