The Stanley Cup Playoffs are finally upon us and the tension is palpable! Focussing on the 1st vs 4th matchup in the West, we have the Colorado Avalanche vs St Louis Blues. This series is only the second meeting between these two franchises in the playoffs and the first since 2001.
Securing the first seed in the West and the President’s Trophy to boot, the Colorado Avalanche claims home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs and is rewarded with a challenging matchup against a resurgent Blues team.
There are plenty of talking points to this Colorado Avalanche vs St Louis Blues series including the top seed’s dynamism and the Blues’ view on being the underdogs. We are honing in on the most important story arcs, the ones which will ultimately shape the outcome of this West Division tilt. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the discussion.
Colorado Avalanche vs St Louis Blues
St Louis’ Underdog Mentality
St Louis needs to channel their inner 2019 if they are to have any chance to win this series.
The fact of the matter is, on most nights, Colorado is playing a different sport than almost everyone else in the entire league. They play a game that their opponents are not invited into; trying to hang with them in a game revolved around slick passing and dynamic skating will lead to a perilous demise.
They are better than you and that’s the end of it. Mind you, it’s only natural when you have a starting five (skaters) who carry more underlying statistical value than entire NHL rosters.
But how then does St Louis make a game of this?
Well, they make it nasty. They get chippy, get physical and go to work on the forecheck.
After all, St Louis has the hard-as-nails archetype in abundance. They are also well led by Ryan O’Reilly who will set the standard for what is expected. Throwing around words like resilience, willpower and brute force is normally just empty mutterings of a disgruntled fan in a bar. But if there is one team that can impose their will on a series and drag a more skilled team into a dogfight with them, it is the Blues.
Colorado’s Even Strength Dominance
The Avalanche play a high-octane style, driven by puck-moving defencemen and an abundance of offensive skill, led primarily by their first line. Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen have scorched their competition at even strength, this season. They’ve outscored opponents 35-16 while maintaining over 66% in both Corsi and expected goals. In other words, they absolutely dominate in puck possession and shot quality (and actual goals).
As a result, they tend to draw plenty of penalties because of how they frustrate back-checking defenders into ill-discipline. Naturally, this feeds into another strength of the Avs’ on the powerplay. The 207 penalties they’ve drawn in 2021 tops the league by 17, which in itself, is remarkable. (To put it into perspective, St Louis has only drawn 155).
As such, in their head-to-head series this season, Colorado has outscored St Louis 13-6 on the powerplay and smoked them in goals rate on top of that (14.8 per 60 plays 7.86 per 60). Overall, St Louis conceded 37 penalties in the 8-game season series with Colorado, which also partly explains why the Blues are eighth in the NHL for powerplay opportunities against.
If they want to hang with Colorado, they can’t afford to be that ill-disciplined at five-on-five. The series won’t last much beyond the week if they emulate the regular season.
If both first-choice netminders are available for selection, then Colorado secures a slight advantage in this matchup.
Philipp Grubauer has quite simply dominated for most of the year. He is first in high-danger shot save percentage (.859), eighth in regular save percentage (.922) and tenth in goals saved above expected (5.2)*.
Meanwhile, Jordan Binnington has positively regressed to the league average after a rough first half of the season. But while it is true he has been much stronger of late (and better than Grubauer), he is still susceptible to inconsistency.
What should be particularly worrying for Blues fans is that Binnington hasn’t excelled at stopping high-danger chances. Any guesses on who produces a whole lot of them? You got it! Colorado is second in high danger chances and first in high danger chance share (59.34 percent) on the season.
Turning our attention to the backups and it becomes a competitive crapshoot.
Colorado did a botch job at securing depth at the goaltending position down the stretch. Fleshing out a roster as elite as theirs with the likes of Devan Dubnyk and Jonas Johansson is pretty criminal.
Of course, the Avalanche has no intention of using their backups in the playoffs. But, given the fact that a goaltending injury effectively ended their postseason run in 2020, you’d think they might have splashed out on someone better. According to Money Puck, Dubnyk and Johansson rank 52nd (-8.8) and 62nd (-14.1) respectively in goals saved above expected this season out of 67 goaltenders.**
Although, St Louis’ solution is no better; Ville Husso ranks worse in save percentage (.893) than both of Colorado’s depth pieces.
Colorado Avalanche vs St Louis Blues Prediction
Let’s get one thing straight. No matter how absurd the Avalanche’s depth and skill are, this won’t be a cakewalk into the second round.
St Louis has been here before, and then some. Considering that they are still boasting 14 members from their 2019 Stanley Cup campaign, they clearly have the seasoned veterans that know what it takes to win a series. This fact alone is invaluable, particularly for an unfancied side.
What’s more, the contingent of the Blues squad currently in possession of a Stanley Cup ring isn’t just a mishmash of bottom-six roster fillers and third pair defencemen. The Blues’ entire top six and starting goaltender were all heavily involved in their fairytale run from worst to first, two years ago.
That being said, it is difficult to see anything beyond an Avalanche series victory, barring an injury to Philipp Grubauer, of course.
Colorado wins out in almost every category available in this matchup, save for short-handed goals. Although I doubt, there’ll be enough of those to swing a series.
Verdict: Colorado in 6.
*Minimum of 1000 mins on the ice
**Minimum of 10 games
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