The second round awaits, but with who needs to be decided.
Now that the Colorado Avalanche have made good on Darryl Sutter’s proclamation that whoever faces them in the first round would have a “waste of eight days” (it was actually seven), we can turn our attention to the second round where the playoffs should really begin for the Avs. With all due respect to Nashville, they were outclassed in the first round, and the post-game quotes from their two defensive stalwarts demonstrate that they knew they had no chance against a forceful and engaged Avs team.
Ekholm: “4-0 speaks loudly … we played to the best of our capabilities.”
Josi, on how this team compares to the league’s best”You just saw it in the playoffs”
The second round should bring a much tougher test for the Avs as they will play one of their two division rivals, and you can make the case that the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild were the second and third best teams in the Western Conference this season.
So who would you rather face Avs fans? Let’s break it down.
Let’s start with the easiest case to make. The Avs swept the Blues last year in dominant fashion, barely trailing throughout the entire first-round series, much like the Nashville match-up they just breezed through. Given that this Blues roster closely resembles last year’s, it’s reasonable to expect a similar outcome should the two teams meet again.
Additionally, the Blues are a bit unsettled in goal. Jordan Binnington came into the season as the starter, but Ville Husso outplayed him this year, finishing ninth in goals saved above expected per Moneypuck.com. Binnington struggled mightily this season, finishing 98th in the NHL in goals saved above expected (out of 119 goalies, with former Av Philipp Grubauer coming in at 119th). Husso started the Wild series, but Binnington got the nod in Game 4, stopping 28 shots en route to a 5-2 Blues victory. Who starts a pivotal Game 5 and 6 in net is an open question now.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are not the time to have a goalie controversy, and while there are far worse things than having two goalies playing well at the most important time of the season. Not knowing who will be playing the game’s most important position on a night-to-night basis is not conducive to the consistency needed to succeed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
This is pretty easy too. The Wild have perhaps the most battle-tested goaltender of any playoff team in Marc-Andre Fleury. Given that we saw a relative unknown in Connor Ingram nearly steal an absolutely dominant performance by the Avalanche in Game 2 of the Nashville series, it is eminently possible that Fleury could swing a series all on his own. Add in the fact that the Wild have the most talented offensive player between the two teams in Kirill Kaprizov, and those two alone could be enough to swing an series against the Wild in favor of the underdog.
Experience this time of year matters, as the Blues still have 11 players from their 2019 Stanley Cup championship team, and they have added players with plenty of playoff experience to it like Nick Leddy, Justin Faulk, Brandon Saad, and Torey Krug. Minnesota is not completely bereft of playoff veterans, but when comparing the two teams on this measure, it’s no contest. St. Louis’s roster is far more battle-tested at every position other than goalie.
Goalie is also a potential reason to want to play the Wild. The best case for fearing Fleury lies in his past performance. If we are solely grading the goaltenders based on this season’s output, Ville Husso is the only goalie Colorado should fear between these two teams. Fleury finished 116th in the NHL in goals saved above expected, as he is providing yet another example of how father time is undefeated.
We’ve touched on the Blues’ experience and potential goalie advantage over the Wild, but there is still one elephant in the room to address: the disastrous Vegas series last year. The Vegas Golden Knights outlined the blueprint for slowing down the dynamic Avalanche attack. By mucking up the neutral zone and playing a heavy, overly physical game in all three zones, it forced the Avs to not only play at a slower pace but to get away from what makes them so dangerous: entering the offensive zone with puck possession and speed. By virtue of their playoff experience and their heavier style, the Blues seem better equipped to replicate Vegas’s strategy than the Wild.
If the Avs play their style of game and don’t run into a hot goalie, they should beat whoever comes out of this playoff series. The Blues and Wild are both very good teams, but the Avs are a great team. I tend to think that the Blues are a better match-up for the Avs, as they are a bit slower than the Wild and would not be able to keep up with a track meet should the Avs impose their will on the series. Among lines who played together for 200 minutes or more this season, the Wild have three of the top 29 in expected goals percentage per Moneypuck.com, while the Blues have just one line in the top 50. The Blues are better equipped to drag the Avs into a style they are not used to playing, but the Wild have the skill and scoring ability to meet the Avs on their own terms.
What do you think Avs fans? Sound off in the comments below on who you would rather face between two of the Avs’ biggest current rivals.