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Series preview: Golden Knights and Avalanche clash in highly-anticipated second-round matchup

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Both teams finished the regular season with a league-high 82 points.

NHL: FEB 22 Golden Knights at Avalanche Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It seems the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche were destined to meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s as though the entire season has been leading up to this moment, and what once seemed merely written in the stars is now a reality.

The Golden Knights and Avalanche will go to battle in a best-of-seven second-round series that kicks off tonight with Game 1 in Denver. How many games the series will require is not yet known, though both sides expect a long and competitive fight.

The Avalanche and Golden Knights finished first and second in the NHL standings during the regular season. Though both clubs finished with 82 points, Colorado won the division and the Presidents’ Trophy thanks to the regulation-wins tiebreaker (35-30). The Avalanche ultimately were able to overtake the Knights in the standings with a 2-1 win in Vegas in the final week of the regular season.

It’s not every day that the second round features a matchup that pits the top two teams in the NHL against one another, but here we are.

How we got here

Though many expected this matchup, the Golden Knights have not had an easy path.

Vegas had to go through the dreaded Minnesota Wild, who had inexplicably owned the Golden Knights for four years.

Not anymore.

The Knights finally defeated their greatest foe, clinching the first-round series with a 6-2 win in Game 7 Friday night at T-Mobile Arena.

It was the first Game 7 at T-Mobile Arena and the first time the Knights clinched a playoff series on home ice.

After losing 1-0 in overtime in Game 1, Vegas proceeded to win three straight — including both games in Minnesota, a feat Vegas had yet to accomplish in regulation in franchise history — to take a 3-1 series lead. The Knights were unable to end it in five, though, leading to the third blown 3-1 series lead in the last three years.

To the Wild’s credit, this series could have gone either way. Minnesota was a formidable opponent and pushed Vegas to the brink thanks to a gutsy road performance in Game 5 and a 3-0 shutout win at home in Game 6.

Game 7 was tight early on, and the Wild responded twice after the Knights scored a go-ahead goal, but Vegas ultimately pulled away thanks to a three-goal surge in the second period. Mattias Janmark recorded the first hat trick of his NHL career to lead Vegas to a commanding 6-2 victory.

It was a physically and emotionally draining series, and the Knights are coming into tonight’s game with just one day of rest between rounds.

For Colorado, it’s a very different story.

When the puck drops tonight in Game 1, the Avalanche will have been off for an entire week after quickly disposing of the St. Louis Blues in four games in the first round.

Colorado Avalanche v St Louis Blues - Game Four Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Colorado has not played since May 23 and will be a very well-rested bunch for round two.

The Avalanche crushed the Blues in the first round, outscoring St. Louis 20-7 and winning every game by at least three goals. Colorado trailed only once in the entire series and did so for just over seven minutes in the second period of Game 4.

It was a clinic.

Colorado managed a 61.71 percent expected goal share, 63.92 percent scoring chance share and 60 percent high-danger Corsi share at 5-on-5; the Avs gave up just one high-danger goal at 5-on-5 and two total at all strengths.

The Knights finished their seven-game series with a 54.49 percent expected goal share, 51.97 percent scoring chance share and 50.88 percent high-danger Corsi share at 5-on-5. The Knights scored and gave up six high-danger goals at 5-on-5, giving them a 50-50 split with Minnesota.

But small sample sizes don’t necessarily yield reliable results.

That being said, in the regular season, Colorado finished first in just about every possession category. While Vegas’ numbers were impressive, particularly ranking second in goal share (58.19 percent), the discrepancies demonstrate just how solid Colorado has been all year and how well the Avalanche have controlled play.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison:

Regular season statistical comparison

Statistic (5-on-5) Colorado (% share) NHL rank (COL) NHL rank (VGK) Vegas (% share)
Statistic (5-on-5) Colorado (% share) NHL rank (COL) NHL rank (VGK) Vegas (% share)
Corsi 58.98 1 6 53.37
Shots 58.31 1 6 53.29
Goals 59.82 1 2 58.19
Expected goals 60.08 1 8 53.29
Scoring chances 60.43 1 5 54.36
High-danger Corsi 58.75 1 9 53.47
High-danger goals 61.11 1 9 54.76

It’s no wonder the Avalanche had such a successful campaign, though the Knights were the only team in the NHL to hit 40 wins and were able to do so even without such incredible numbers.

Four of those 40 wins came against Colorado, as the two teams split the eight-game series (though the Avalanche went 4-3-1, not 4-4-0 like Vegas).

Season series recap

Vegas Golden Knights v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images
  • Game 1 (2/14): Max Pacioretty scores the only goal of the game early in the second period as Marc-Andre Fleury records a 30-save shutout in a 1-0 Vegas win.
  • Game 2 (2/16): Vegas fights back from two one-goal deficits, making it a 2-2 game at 6:52 of the third period. The game appears headed for overtime, but Colorado pulls off a stunning 3-2 win as Nazem Kadri scores with just 41 seconds left in regulation.
  • Game 3 (2/20): In the outdoor game, Samuel Girard gives Colorado an early 1-0 lead in a dominant first period for the Avs before the eight-hour delay. Both teams score in the second period before Avalanche defenseman Devon Toews puts Colorado up by two. Alex Tuch makes it a one-goal game just 1:14 later, but the Knights fall in a 3-2 loss.
  • Game 4 (2/22): Fleury shuts out the Avalanche for the second time, making 34 saves. Tuch continues his hot streak with two more goals as part of a three-goal second period for Vegas in a 3-0 win.
  • Game 5 (3/25): Pacioretty gives Vegas a 1-0 lead just 40 seconds into the first period, but the Knights surrender five unanswered goals, four of which come in the middle frame of the 5-1 defeat.
  • Game 6 (3/27): The Knights respond after the embarrassing loss and force extra time in a tight game. Pacioretty nets the game-winner just under two minutes into overtime for the 3-2 win.
  • Game 7 (4/28): William Karlsson scores just 10 seconds into the game, but it’s a big night for the Knights’ top line, as Pacioretty and Mark Stone combine for six points. Colorado gets goals from defensemen Toews and Ryan Graves while newly-acquired Devan Dubnyk takes the 5-2 loss.
  • Game 8 (5/10): Vegas is forced to play with just 15 skaters due to injuries and salary cap complications. The Knights are the better team for most of the game but run out of gas and are unable to respond after J.T. Compher scores a deflating goal midway through the third period. Robin Lehner gets the surprising start as Vegas loses a critical game, squandering the opportunity to win the Presidents’ Trophy for home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

Elite in the crease

Vegas Golden Knights v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

Goaltending is almost guaranteed to be a critical factor in the outcome of this series.

Fleury and Lehner were the 2021 recipients of the William M. Jennings Trophy for giving up a league-low 124 goals, and Fleury will be in the Vezina discussion for the best season of his career.

He went 26-10-0 in 36 starts, finishing third in the NHL in wins despite playing fewer games than the two who managed more (Andrei Vasilevskiy and Philipp Grubauer).

Fleury’s 1.98 goals-against average was the best of his career and good for fourth in the NHL (third among goalies who played 20 games), and his .928 save percentage just barely edged out his previous career-high .927 from his first season with Vegas. Only two goalies with at least 10 starts had better save percentages, and only one regular starter managed to top Fleury’s mark (Semyon Varlamov, .929).

He recorded six shutouts (third in the NHL), one more than he did last year in 12 fewer starts. He carried the Knights all year and finished on a hot streak, winning nine consecutive games to end the regular season.

Fleury started all seven games in the first round against Minnesota, going 4-3 with a 1.71 goals-against average, .931 save percentage and one shutout (Game 4).

While Cam Talbot had a very strong series for Minnesota, recording shutouts in two of his team’s three wins, the Knights have a much bigger hill to climb in this round.

That’s because Grubauer stands beside Fleury as one of the top goaltenders in the NHL this season.

He won 30 games in 39 starts (30-9-1), recording a 1.95 goals-against average, .922 save percentage and seven shutouts. The only category in which Fleury held the edge was save percentage (.928 to .922). Otherwise, Grubauer excelled across the board.

Fleury vs. Grubauer: Regular season performance

Statistic (min. 20 GP) Fleury NHL rank Grubauer NHL rank
Statistic (min. 20 GP) Fleury NHL rank Grubauer NHL rank
Record (starts) 26-10-0 (36) -- 30-9-1 (39) --
Wins 26 3 30 2
GAA 1.98 3 1.95 3
SV% 0.928 3 0.922 8
SO 6 3 7 1
GSAx 19.2 1 4.26 11
HDSV% 0.846 6 0.859 1

He went 4-0 in the first-round series against St. Louis, maintaining a 1.75 goals-against average and .936 save percentage, good for third and fourth among active goaltenders. Fleury ranks second and sixth in the playoffs in goals-against average and save percentage, respectively.

Also, Grubauer and Fleury are two of the three goalies who picked up an assist in the first round (Nashville’s Juuse Saros being the other).

Despite the strong numbers, Fleury’s performance dipped in the second half of the series against Minnesota.

He was sensational in the first four games, giving up four goals and carrying a 0.99 goals-against average and .966 save percentage with one shutout.

But Fleury was not nearly as sharp in Games 5-7; he went 1-2 while giving up eight goals for a 2.69 goals-against average and .860 save percentage.

That being said, by no means was he the reason the series went to seven games, and he was better in Game 7, giving up two goals on 20 shots.

That continues to be key for Vegas.

In the regular season, Fleury gave up two or fewer goals in 25 games. In those games, the Knights went 22-3-0. By contrast, Vegas went 4-7-0 when he gave up at least three.

Eye on the Ball

St Louis Blues v Colorado Avalanche - Game Two Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

Though both teams finished the regular season with 82 points and the Knights finished with more wins (40), Colorado won the tiebreaker and therefore the division and Presidents’ Trophy.

The Knights’ fate was in their hands, but a disappointing 2-1 loss at home in the final week of the season sealed that fate. The Avalanche won out, defeating the Kings by a combined score of 11-2 in their final two games.

Vegas was the second-best team in the NHL, and having home-ice advantage in the first round played a crucial role in the Knights’ series win, with Vegas winning Game 7 at T-Mobile Arena.

That will not be the case in this matchup, however.

By winning the tiebreaker, the Avalanche have guaranteed themselves home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

Following Game 7, the Knights had a quick turnaround before flying to Denver to prepare for the second round. While Colorado may have some rust after not playing since last Sunday, the Knights are at a considerable disadvantage for the start of the series.

That’s because the Avalanche have been absolutely and unequivocally dominant on home ice over the last few months.

In fact, the Avalanche have gone 18-0-1 at Ball Arena since losing 3-2 to the Coyotes on March 8. This includes Games 1 and 2 in the first-round series against St. Louis.

The only loss in that stretch was an overtime defeat at the hands of the Golden Knights in late March.

But the Avalanche have been so strong on home ice, they might as well have forgotten what it feels like to not win in front of their fans.

The Knights are hoping to change that and will look to split the first two games of the series if possible. Game 1 is a great opportunity considering the layover for Colorado.

Depth department

Vegas Golden Knights v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

In the first round against Minnesota, Vegas had a clear advantage in top-end talent but fell short in terms of depth, both at forward and on the blue line.

Depth players came up huge in Game 7, as Janmark netted a hat trick and both Nicolas Hague and Zach Whitecloud scored key game-changing goals in the second period.

But in this matchup, it’s difficult to say Vegas has the edge when it comes to elite talent, and the Avalanche have legitimate depth to go along with it.

Colorado arguably has the best line in hockey.

The trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog is one of the most unstoppable lines in the league, and they combined for a ridiculous 24 points in just four games in the first round.

Getting Pacioretty back in the lineup was huge for Vegas in Game 7 and will be a considerable boost for the Knights moving forward. Not only does he significantly improve Vegas offensively, but his presence gives the Knights more confidence and allows the rest of the lines to fill out more naturally. His availability for the start of the series will be especially key considering how well he performed against Colorado in the regular season.

Pacioretty led all Knights skaters with six goals and eight points in seven games. Stone and Karlsson were second and third with six and five points, respectively, but Pacioretty was one of the most influential players on either team.

Even so, Colorado possesses lethal offensive capabilities, so the Golden Knights will need contributions from throughout the lineup now more than ever.

The third line of Janmark, Nicolas Roy and Tuch could be a difference-maker in the series (they combined for eight goals and 15 points in the first round), and the fact that Shea Theodore finally chipped in with two assists in Game 7 is an encouraging development for Vegas. Interestingly, only four defensemen have more points than Nick Holden this postseason, as the rearguard has four assists in five games. He is second in this matchup in points per game (0.80), trailing only Graves (1.0).

But Colorado has gotten consistent production from its middle-six scoring depth all year. General manager Joe Sakic has done a masterful job acquiring talent, and the Avalanche have improved considerably with a much deeper bottom nine and defense corps.

Andre Burakovsky, who was on the Washington Capitals when they won the Stanley Cup in 2018, finished fourth on the team in scoring in the regular season with 44 points, and his 19 goals trailed only the top-line forwards. Joonas Donskoi scored 17 goals in the regular season, and he and Brandon Saad (who scored 15) have combined for five goals so far this postseason.

The games between these clubs in the regular season were electric, but neither team was at full strength at any point.

While both teams are relatively healthy now, the Avalanche will be without top-six center Kadri, who was issued an eight-game suspension for his hit on Justin Faulk in Game 2 against St. Louis.

Kadri appealed the suspension, but no timetable for a final decision has been established. He has served two of eight games; if Gary Bettman elects to keep the suspension at eight games, Kadri would not be eligible to return until Game 7, should there be one.

While Kadri’s absence hurts, center depth is certainly not a strength for Vegas. Plus, Compher has done an admirable job stepping into the second-line center role. He should come in playing with confidence after driving to the net and scoring what essentially became the Presidents’ Trophy-clinching goal against Lehner and the Knights only weeks ago.

On the back end, superstar defenseman Cale Makar is a game-breaker, but the acquisition of Toews is what really solidified this blue line. Toews finished second on the team in points against Vegas this season with five, trailing only MacKinnon.

Makar scored one goal and three points in the first round, but his transition play creates more offense, feeding Colorado’s speed and injecting explosive breakout ability on the rush.

The fact that Vegas held MacKinnon to six points in eight games is impressive, but he and his linemates are capable of taking over a game in an instant, and Makar often gets things started.

The Knights will need an effort similar to Game 7 with everyone up and down the lineup contributing; the Avalanche have more than enough talent to run up the score, but they can just as easily sit dormant, waiting for an opportunity to strike.

Contain the power

NHL: MAY 19 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round - Blues at Avalanche Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Knights established and stuck to a pattern in the first round, coming out to slow starts and eventually exploding in the second period.

That’s not a winning strategy in general, and it’s a risky one considering how quickly Colorado can take over a game.

Assuming Vegas is better able to settle into games (aside from relying on Fleury to stop 20 shots), the Knights’ next greatest challenge will be slowing down Colorado’s power play and maintaining discipline.

In the first round, Colorado converted on 50 percent of its power plays, scoring six goals on 12 attempts. That’s a drastic improvement over their 22.7 percent average in the regular season, and it’s an unheard-of rate that isn’t sustainable but is frightening nevertheless.

The Knights found a way to drastically minimize Colorado’s effectiveness on the power play in the regular season, which is both good and bad.

The Knights had the best penalty kill in the league, but the Avalanche were still able to go 4-2-1 in games in which Grubauer started without getting much of any contribution from the man advantage. The Knights can’t afford for their first-round success to carry over into this series.

That’s especially true since Minnesota made the Knights’ penalty kill look somewhat pedestrian in the final two games of the series, exposing wrinkles in what had been Vegas’ greatest asset all year. The Knights will need to patch any fractures and tighten things up once again.

But the best way to handle Colorado’s power play is to not give it a chance to breathe, so discipline will be vital. The Knights were able to hold the Avalanche to one power-play goal on 21 attempts in the regular season for a 4.8 percent effectiveness rate, but replicating that seems highly unlikely in this series, particularly given how rested Colorado will be at the start of it.

No matter what, Fleury (or Lehner) will need to be other-worldly and will have to come through as the last line of defense on the penalty kill.

But if the Knights want to have a fighting chance in this series, containing the power play will be essential. The Avalanche were the best possession team in the NHL at 5-on-5; giving them an extra man and extra space could be a recipe for disaster for the Knights.

The margin of error is razor-thin for Vegas, but this should be one heck of a series.

Projected lineups

Avalanche

Landeskog — MacKinnon — Rantanen
Donskoi — Compher — Burakovsky
Saad — Tyson Jost — Valeri Nichushkin
Carl Soderberg — Bellemare — Alex Newhook

Toews — Makar
Graves — Samuel Girard
Patrik Nemeth — Conor Timmins

Grubauer
Jonas Johansson

Golden Knights

Pacioretty — Stephenson — Stone
Jonathan Marchessault — Karlsson — Reilly Smith
Janmark — Roy — Tuch
William Carrier — Patrick Brown — Ryan Reaves

Alec Martinez — Pietrangelo
Holden — Theodore
Hague — Whitecloud

Fleury
Lehner


How to watch Game 1

Time: 5 p.m.

TV: NBC

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM


Full series schedule

Game 1 (at Colorado): Sunday, May 30 at 5 p.m.
Game 2 (at Colorado): Wednesday, June 2 at 7 p.m.
Game 3 (vs. Colorado): Friday, June 4 at 7 p.m.
Game 4 (vs. Colorado): Sunday, June 6 at 5:30 p.m.
Game 5 (at Colorado): Tuesday, June 8 (if necessary)
Game 6 (vs. Colorado): Thursday June 10 (if necessary)
Game 7 (at Colorado): Saturday June 12 (if necessary)