This is either the start of something special, or crushingly disappointing, for the Colorado Avalanche, who are as heavily invested in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs as any other franchise.
Most reflected in the words and tacit language of Nathan MacKinnon in the raw moments of previous postseason exits, it burns, deeply, for the Avalanche after three consecutive second-round exits. Arguably the greatest relative under-performers in the league right now, the Avalanche have risen to the top of the NHL hierarchy but continue to hit the same postseason wall.
Their success partly due to the cost-effective options scattered throughout the lineup, the Avalanche are running low on opportunities to take advantage of their methodical rise from the depths of the league standings. There's more than a handful of pending unrestricted free agents on the roster, most of which will earn their next paychecks from another organization. Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Valeri Nichushkin, Josh Manson and Darcy Kuemper will be some of the most sought-after free agents in a crowded market this summer. The Avs are also bracing for the extension Nathan MacKinnon is eligible to sign almost as soon as this season ends.
It's that reason one shouldn't expect the Avs to play with their food in Round 1. This team understands the gravity of this postseason run, and should be looking to move through the checkpoints with as little resistance as possible. Nashville is clearly the inferior side, and will be playing without their star netminder, Juuse Saros, to further drive home the discrepancies between the two teams.
Having either Connor Ingram or David Rittich in net versus the Western Conference's most dangerous offensive team is as unsavoury as situations come.
But what Nashville has done so effectively this season is what should motivate Colorado most to wrap up the series quickly. The NHL leaders in total hits and penalty minutes, opponents tend to remember their encounters with the Predators. In a big-picture contest that is about attrition, limiting the damage at this stop seems important for the heavy favourites in the Western Conference. A considerable challenge awaits in the second round, as one of the hottest teams in the NHL — either the Minnesota Wild or St. Louis Blues — looms in Round 2.
Despite the long-shot odds, Nashville does deserve credit for an amazing season, and one which exceeded most expectations. The Predators were in the mix in the Central Division all season long, and threatened 100 points despite many in the hockey world predicting a clear step back. There were standout performances across the board. Roman Josi had a record-breaking season worth Norris Trophy consideration. Head coach Jon Hynes, the aforementioned Saros, and unheralded rookie forward Tanner Jeannot could attract award attention as well. And Filip Forsberg and Matt Duchene had outstanding scoring seasons in their own right, with the latter bouncing back in a big way.
It's a team with a lot working for it, and more than it's been given credit for.
It just doesn't compare right now with what the Avalanche have built.
What have you done for me lately?
Both the Avalanche and Predators coughed something up over the last few weeks of the season.
After dominating through the middle portion of the season schedule, Colorado just couldn't keep the pace the Florida Panthers were setting and missed out on back-to-back Presidents' Trophies. They were only just a top-10 squad based on points percentage over the last six weeks of the season, but still comfortably finished with 119 points and the Western Conference's top seed.
Nashville, meanwhile, lost its grip on the first wild card position on the final night of the season after allowing five unanswered goals in a loss to the Arizona Coyotes. Managing 15 points from 15 games in the month of April, the Predators finished the season on one of their worst stretches all year.
The Avalanche will win if...
Hockey Gods exist.
The Predators will win if...
They can defy the steepest odds imaginable in a postseason series. Nashville is as high as +600 to advance ahead of Game 1.
It could be a new one from game to game and series to series for the Avalanche, but expect Cale Makar to shine in this series. While the votes have already been submitted, he faces a head-to-head matchup versus the only defenseman who can prevent him from becoming a first-time Norris Trophy winner in Josi.
The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung Hero)
Quietly one of the best play-drivers in hockey is the unheralded Valeri Nichushkin. Look for him to spur some lopsided shifts in favour of the Avalanche.
Avs in five.
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