The best way for the Avalanche to reach its goal of hoisting the Stanley Cup?
It’s exactly what Colorado showed over the past week in easily dispatching Arizona in five games: Force the issue with in-your-face even-strength play, giving its now-healthy power play opportunities to shine with the man advantage.
Goaltending and penalty killing are less of a concern because the Avs are so ferocious offensively that they can dictate pace on any team they play.
Let’s face it: Arizona had virtually no chance of upsetting Colorado in the first-round series that ended Wednesday. The Coyotes didn’t have the speed or skill to defend the Avs, or present much of a counter-attack. In the end — and especially in the last two games, both 7-1 Avalanche wins in Edmonton — Arizona took penalties early in the defensive end and Colorado rolled out the NHL’s most dangerous power play.
The Avs scored seven times on 20 man-advantage opportunities for an NHL-leading 35% success rate in the first round.
They can beat you with Nathan MacKinnon’s wrist shots or one-time slap shots from either circle. They can beat you with Nazem Kadri’s quick one-timer from the top of the crease off Gabe Landeksog’s one-touch pass from the goal line. They can beat you with Mikko Rantanen’s big one-time clapper from the left circle. They can beat you with whatever Cale Makar’s shot selection is from the point.
If they can’t beat you with balletic puck movement leading to big shots, they aren’t afraid to collapse to the front of the net and get a dirty goal.
And, still, if none of that works, the second unit comes in with even more threats to contend with. There’s Andre Burakovsky’s wrist shot from the right wing or J.T. Compher’s and Joonas Donskoi’s ability from the left or in front of the net. And all of those looks typically start with the highly capable play of Sam Girard from the point.
Both units are directed from the bench by assistant coach Ray Bennett, who is in his 19th NHL season as a power play guru, and third with Colorado.
In eight total postseason games, including three in the pre-tournament round-robin, the Avs’ first unit has scored nine power-play goals and the second has produced two. Combined, they are at 30.6% since beginning play in Edmonton.
So why was the Avs’ power play ranked 19th at 19.1% through 70 regular-season games? Easy answer: The personnel wasn’t like it is now. Injuries all over the map rarely had the Avs’ top offensive threats playing together, and a mixture of the first and second units playing together wasn’t as strong.
“We wanted to click all year (but) you start studying the personnel that was missing out of our lineup at different times. We didn’t have that (first) group of five together for the bulk of the year. I think it was 14% of the time we had those guys together,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said after his team went 3-of-4 on the power play with goals from Kadri, MacKinnon and Girard to close out the series. “After sort of looking at that — they never really got to gel and become the power play we thought they could be at the start of the year.
“That’s not an excuse but going into the second training camp, after the pause, Ray talks to those guys a lot about principles of what we want to try to do and not get locked in on one play. It lets them be creative and sort of attack in different ways. We just wanted to make sure it was running at a certain pace and have a certain attack mentality that was going to make us more dangerous than we had been in the regular season.”
The Avs know they can go far in these playoffs by playing their game — which starts with great defense, pushing the puck up ice and rolling all four lines. With that pressure and depth, Colorado has proven it will draw more penalties than it takes, leading to more man-advantage opportunities. Then the power play can become the difference-maker.
“The guys are just focused. Their execution is great,” Bednar said of his first unit in particular. “Forehand to forehand passes — all the kinds of things Ray gets them talking about, thinking about, and they’re creative, skill players and we saw the best of them in the past couple games and hopefully, we can continue to play that well and be as dangerous in a power play on a nightly basis.”