It’s no secret I haven’t been in the coronation train for the Colorado Avalanche this season, and not just because I cover the Vegas Golden Knights. I wasn’t ready to simply hand a championship to a team that hadn’t quite proved its depth, had yet to show me consistent goaltending, and most importantly, shown that they can still win without massive possession numbers.
There’s no secret to the Avalanche game. It’s based on speed, time of possession and offense as defense. Even the team’s defensive corps is pointed towards offense, starting with Cale Makar (who can also play his own end capably) and guys like Samuel Girard. The new NHL’s model of small, mobile and able to move the puck fast.
Here’s the rub for the Avalanche: Vegas has suddenly negated the advantage in possession numbers by jamming up the neutral zone where the Avalanche likes to fly through with touch passes to beat defense sets, and by pressuring Colorado constantly when they do make the offensive zone.
Many teams tend to drop back and play a little more cautious in the D-zone, allowing pucks to be sent to the point and preferring to lightly pressure the puck carrier up top. The Vegas Golden Knights has flipped the switch and is going all-out at the puck in the defensive zone, taking away not only the time and space the Avs require down low but up top as well. It became especially obvious in Game Four watching the Vegas wingers pressure the Avs defense up top. They were forcing mistakes and turnovers because in every possible instance the Avalanche were rushed.
It also helped Vegas that with home-ice advantage the Golden Knights could match lines, putting Mark Stone – Chandler Stephenson – Max Pacioretty against the Avs top line, even forcing a switch at one point when Avs coach Jared Bednar moved Gabriel Landeskog off the unit in favor of Andre Burakovsky for the third period of Game Three. Heading back to Denver, Colorado may get more favorable matchups for that line.
No matter how you slice it, the Avalanche has a big problem: they’re essentially a one-line team. Even Philipp Grubauer playing out of his mind has not been enough to stem the tide of the Golden Wave Vegas is drowning the Avalanche with. Nathan MacKinnon is one of the game’s most dominant players when he has time to operate in the zone and move the puck. He needs very little time to either find a target or shoot the puck. But Vegas has been smothering after a sobering Game One, and in reality, this series could easily be 3-1 and not 2-2.
With a lack of depth scoring outside of that top line, the Avalanche are in serious trouble. Even if Nazem Kadri were playing (his suspension was upheld earlier today), he still doesn’t contribute enough offensively to make a difference. Vegas has solved the equation, knowing full well that if they delete the combined 16 goals of the top line, Colorado has only generated 17 goals the rest of the lineup combined.
Heading into tonight’s Game Five, it’s clear the Vegas Golden Knights hold all the cards. They deal them too, and the Avalanche have to play a tough hand. If Colorado’s top line doesn’t produce – and it only generated five shots in Game Four – this could be over in six.