After dominating three rounds of their postseason competition, the Colorado Avalanche are headed to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Avs' superstars have delivered, as Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar are both making strong cases for the Conn Smythe. But they've gotten superb production from depth players as well, including a series-winning goal from Artturi Lehkonen in Game 4 against the Edmonton Oilers. With their second series sweep of the postseason, it's taken the Avalanche only 14 games to roll through three opponents.
What makes the Avs so exciting to watch -- and so difficult for the opposition to defeat? Let's explore the key factors as Colorado has moved one step closer to the Cup.
Yes, Colorado is that good
Let's start with the facts: In eliminating Edmonton, the Avalanche became just the sixth team in the last 20 seasons to sweep a conference final series. That places Colorado in elite company -- but not necessarily on the fast track to a Stanley Cup win. Only two of those five teams -- the 2009 Anaheim Ducks and 2010 Chicago Blackhawks -- went on to hoist the Cup. The 2003 Ducks and 2019 Boston Bruins lost in Game 7 of their respective Cup Final. The 2013 Bruins lost in Game 6.
This Colorado team is its own unique animal. We've seen them do it all. The Avalanche swept their first-round series against the Nashville Predators without starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper available for almost half of it. They did the same in a conference finals sweep of the Oilers, relying as seamlessly on Pavel Francouz as they would Kuemper. Goaltending can make or break a playoff run; Colorado rolled along whether Kuemper and Francouz were dominant or decent.
It was the same story offensively. When the Avalanche's top line wasn't firing, its second and third units scored timely goals, or Colorado got a key contribution from some unlikely hero (for example, Darren Helm's goal with 5.6 seconds left in regulation of Game 6 against St. Louis to punch Colorado's ticket to the conference finals). That's not luck. That's a team built to win.
Yes, the Avalanche have impressive, star-quality players. They just aren't the only reason Colorado is where it is. And that's what makes the Avalanche so dangerous, the many layers of excellence making them so hard to describe -- or defend. Look at the physical effort put in by Andre Burakovsky -- already injured once this series -- early in Game 4 to get the puck out of Colorado's end. There's such a clear desire in Colorado to reach its goal.
As Nathan MacKinnon so eloquently put it after Colorado's 4-2 Game 3 win over the Oilers, the Avalanche are as happy to play "boring and gross" hockey that's defense-heavy as they are pumping in eight goals.
The Avalanche can adapt to any situation
One of the most impressive things about Colorado is how they pivot. When one area of the team falters, another area comes through.
Consider Colorado's power-play struggles early in the series against Edmonton. The Avalanche owned the NHL's seventh-best power play in the regular season (24%) but through the first three games, Colorado was 2-for-14 (14.3%) on the power play, the lowest output by any team remaining in the postseason field. No matter. The Avalanche just dominated at 5-on-5 instead and made that the real advantage, pumping in 14 even-strength goals and averaging over five goals per game in the series. And their power play came alive in Game 4, scoring on both opportunities.
It's just another example of how the Avalanche haven't let any roadblock slow their progress. If a problem arises, Colorado has a solution. They don't get bogged down in overthinking or overplaying or getting away from the fundamental structure of what makes them a good team. It speaks to the trust Colorado coach Jared Bednar clearly has in his group -- and the confidence his players have in one another -- that the Avalanche really don't show any sign of panic no matter how well or poorly a game goes. Cool heads consistently prevail.
Leaning into a long layoff
There was rust. The Lightning lost Game 1, 6-2. Then they lost Game 2, 3-2. The Rangers came in hot off a Game 7 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes and had all the momentum on their side. Will those early losses ultimately decide Tampa Bay's fate?
More importantly for Colorado, are the Avs headed for similarly troubled waters?
There could be several days of practice ahead for Colorado before it plays another competitive game. It's not an ideal scenario, but it's one in which the Avalanche already have experience this postseason.
Colorado jettisoned Nashville in Game 4 on May 9. It didn't open the second-round series against St. Louis for eight days, and still took Game 1, 3-2 in overtime. The Avalanche were likely feeling the effects of a layoff, but -- as referenced above -- Colorado doesn't get bogged down by adversity.
There also can be positives to the waiting game. Players have a chance to recover and recuperate physically. The longer Tampa and New York rage on, the closer Nazem Kadri (out with a broken thumb) gets to potentially appearing in the Cup Final. The Avalanche don't need hard practices or workouts at this stage. They've proved their mettle already. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be mental, and staying sharp ahead of what will be the most nerve-wracking, career-defining moment for a large swath of the Colorado roster.
Who to play? Or not to play?
Coaches and players will never admit to favoring one opponent or matchup over another. But we can do it for them.
Colorado was 2-0 in the regular season against both Tampa Bay and New York (one of the wins against the Lightning came in a shootout).
There's an argument to be made for avoiding the Lightning simply because of how resilient they've been in the playoffs -- overcoming a 2-0 deficit to start the Eastern Conference finals would add to that narrative -- and the psychological mojo they possess in going for a three-peat.
But the Rangers have been quite resilient too. Closing out the Hurricanes after losing the first two games in their second-round series has (rightfully) injected the Rangers with confidence. The Blueshirts pushed the Lightning around early in the conference finals, and have barely ceded an inch of ground since.
Whatever team comes out of that series will be a formidable opponent for Colorado. And there's a world-class goaltender waiting in the crease regardless, in New York's Igor Shesterkin or Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy.
As we've said, the Avalanche are proficient in every category. All things being equal, Colorado matches up well against either team because the Avalanche are adaptable and can pull from different facets of their game as required.
Perhaps it comes down to avoiding Tampa Bay's mystique, which is why Colorado could be -- secretly -- pulling for the Rangers. New York's depth is strong, its goaltending is terrific, it is a physical group and solid defensively. Avs-Rangers would be a fantastic series. And -- bonus -- would provide us all with a new Cup champion after two years of the Lightning being on top.
Tough break for Kadri
The longer Colorado has before the next round kicks off, the better it will be for Kadri. He broke his thumb when Evander Kane boarded him in Game 3 against Edmonton, and Kadri will be motivated to participate in the first Cup Final of his career.
Colorado will be equally hopeful to have Kadri return. The forward has notched six goals and 14 points in the playoffs to date and was really shining playing with Mikko Rantanen and Artturi Lehkonen against the Oilers. Andre Burakovsky has slid into a second-line role for the Avalanche with Kadri unavailable, and could be a fine replacement there going forward. But if Colorado faces a fully healthy Tampa Bay or New York lineup, Kadri's absence could be a bigger factor.
It's not just that Kadri is a capable, consistent contributor on the scoresheet. He is also good in the faceoff circle (50.5% in the postseason), has earned big minutes on the power play (3:11 per game) and of course has a way of getting under anyone's skin. Intangibles often come to the forefront this time of year, and Kadri's can be especially helpful for Colorado.
Jared Bednar hasn't been forthcoming about any player's health in the postseason, so it's unlikely he'll be providing updates on Kadri anytime soon. What we know for sure is that Colorado is better with Kadri than without him.