The Colorado Avalanche closed out the first round Wednesday in five games, handing the Arizona Coyotes their second straight 7-1 throttling.
Colorado has gone from barely-there qualifier to seemingly serious contender in three seasons.
“It’s a lot of fun,” coach Jared Bednar said of the team’s progression.
Next Colorado will attempt to advance to the conference finals for the first time since 2002. Here are some thoughts from Round 1.
Lest we forget, seventh-seeded Arizona was the underdog in the series. Cautious observers wondered how the Coyotes’ conservative style and brick-wall goaltending would hold up against Colorado’s fast stars and enviable depth.
As it turned out, not long.
Bednar insisted the series was closer than back-to-back 7-1 eyebrow-raisers suggest. But he also ended the Avalanche postgame by saying there wasn’t much he’d change in his team’s recent performances.
Edmonton was favored to win. So was Pittsburgh. It’s the playoffs, land of hot goalies, unexpectedly bad matchups and dashed dreams. It’s hard to call an embarrassing early exit.
Not this one, though. The stars stepped up as expected, with Nathan MacKinnon still on an eight-game point streak — his 4 goals, 9 assists lead the postseason — and Cale Makar (1 goal, 5 assists) and Mikko Rantanen (3 goals, 3 assists) frequently appearing in highlight reels. Everyone down to the fourth line chipped in. Philipp Grubauer won all four starts.
Bednar said early leads bred confidence. Late ties were no issue either. Two performances not up to snuff — Games 2 and 3 — were studied and quickly corrected.
“Our guys just keep finding ways to get better and expect more from one another and they hold each other accountable,” Bednar said.
After a 2019 second-round ouster, AVs GM Joe Sakic, went looking for some complimentary pieces.
Nazem Kadri (5 goals, 2 assists, 4 PPG) Andre Burakovsky (2 goals, 3 assists, 1 GWG) Joonas Donskoi (1 goals, 2 assists) and Pierre-Eduard Bellemare (13+ minutes average TOI) all filled their roles well in their first playoff series with Colorado.
Kadri in particular, camped out in front of the net on Colorado’s top power-play unit, enjoyed a strong series. The 2009 seventh overall pick became a controversial figure in 10 scrutinized seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was suspended five times for illegal hits before his trade to Colorado and fined multiple times by the league.
His 97 penalty minutes in 51 regular-season games with the Avalanche were a career high. But Kadri says he reflected and learned from past mistakes, “just trying to mature as a person and as a player and as a teammate.” And that meant actually being with his teammates.
“I think I’m more valuable on the ice than I am in the penalty box or in the press box,” he said.
“They believed in me since I stepped through the door and I’m just trying not to let them down.”
Captain Gabriel Landeskog said Kadri adds “that little extra sandpaper I felt that we needed last year.”
“Naz has really found a way to impact our hockey club in a great way,” he said.
Power play heats up
As well as it’s clicking, it’s hard to tell that the Avalanche’s top power-play unit was rarely in the lineup at the same time during the regular season.
Bednar said injuries kept the staff’s vision for the power play from ever being fully realized. The 19.1% conversion rate was good for 19th in the NHL before the playoffs.
Ray Bennett’s work is on display now, with six power-play goals in the past two games and seven on 20 attempts in the series.
When MacKinnon first entered the league, the Avalanche had to claw their way into the postseason. Then after some truly lean years, they were just happy to be included again.
He called it a “huge deal” when the team beat Calgary last season to advance for the first time since 2008.
In the 2019-20 training camp, however, it was known that this team is built to win now.
“We felt like our time has arrived,” MacKinnon said.
“There’s definitely a different feel after winning this series.”
“We’ve grown together and we’ve been through the bad,” Landeskog, one of the few who’s witnessed the entire build, added. “We’ve still got work to do, no doubt. But the group that we have in that locker room has a lot of character and obviously we’ve seen the product that we can put on the ice.”