Playoff Preview: Colorado Avalanche vs. San Jose Sharks

This will be the fifth time the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche have met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but just the first time since 2010. That puts these familiar foes on somewhat unfamiliar ground and there’s a sense that this year could tell a unique tale all its own. When you consider that these teams have split their playoff encounters, it suggests that this series could go either way.

But San Jose has had Colorado’s number in their last two post-season go-arounds, for what it’s worth, and the Sharks won the last three regular season meetings. “They are a tough team, no question. They have given us trouble all year,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said. “Playoffs is a different scenario, right? You start over from scratch and it’s best of seven.”

The Avalanche, bearers of the second wild card spot in the Western Conference, bumped off the top-seeded Calgary Flames and did so convincingly. They won the last four games of that series after dropping Game One by a final score of 4-0. Momentum – and a tremendous top trio – carried the day for Colorado.

San Jose took out the Vegas Golden Knights in seven games and it took all the way to overtime in the final contest to seal the deal. The Sharks were the comeback kids in Game Seven and in the series, trailing three games to one before pulling out some much-needed wins.

Scoring

The Avalanche hold the slightest of scoring advantages over the Sharks, at least on paper. They averaged 3.40 goals per game and that has an awful lot to do with their top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. The trio did a number on the Flames in the first round, combining for 21 points in five games.

22-year-old Rantanen led the way with nine points in five games, including five goals. He scored twice on the power play and had 21 shots on goal. In the series-deciding game against the Flames, Rantanen was good for three points and finished a plus-two across just over 17 minutes of ice time.

MacKinnon is the linchpin. He had eight points against Calgary, including three goals. He had three assists in Game Five and three points in Game Three. He was only held pointless in Game One, but got on his horse and took it home for the remainder of the series. He’s a speed demon who could work out some sick moves inside a phone booth, so it’ll be up to the Sharks to contain the 23-year-old.

San Jose knows what it has to do, of course, and they can bring some offence of their own. The Sharks averaged 3.29 goals per game against the Golden Knights and played high pressure hockey. They made the most of their opportunities, including a five-minute penalty to Vegas in Game Seven that led to one of the most dramatic contests in recent memory.

And for all the bleating about whether or not the call was bad, the Sharks don’t care. Why should they? They smelled blood in the water and made the Golden Knights pay, which is what good teams do. If the Sharks can put themselves in the same position against the Avalanche, they can make Colorado pay as well.

In the regular season, San Jose boasted four players with at least 30 goals. In the first round, Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture were the leaders with six apiece. Nobody else had more than two, which suggests that the scoring could be spread out a little. But when you consider how much the Avalanche rely on their top unit, it may not be an issue after all.

Defence

The Avalanche get a lot of press for their offence, but they held their own defensively as well. They allowed a stingy 2.20 goals against per game and held the Flames out of it for long periods of time. Their speed game tends to oppress the opposition and their antagonistic forecheck locks up the neutral zone.

Tyson Barrie averaged 25:06 of ice time against Calgary and drew the top assignments. He also propelled the offence, with five assists in five games. He had 20 shots on goal and finished a plus-two. The 27-year-old likes to move the puck and quarterbacks the power play, plus he has great instincts for the game.

Erik Johnson is a veteran presence. Averaging 21:06 of ice time a game, he can settle into a shutdown role and skates well for a larger dude. At 6’4, 225 pounds, he’ll use his physicality to match up against a larger Sharks team. Rookie Cale Makar is also coming into his own after debuting in Game Three. He has a goal and an assist.

The Sharks like to activate their defence. Consider Erik Karlsson, who led the team in scoring against the Golden Knights with nine assists, and Brent Burns. Both play an upbeat style with plenty of skating persistence. Both focus up-ice, which can leave San Jose open to a lot of latent shots against.

The Sharks did allow 3.57 goals against per game, which means their opponents scored more than they did. They didn’t lock down the Golden Knights. Defence has proven to win post-season chances this season (just ask the Islanders) and that means San Jose is going to have to fine-tune. They can’t count on playing a reply-and-retort game through another round.

32-year-old Marc-Edouard Vlasic is perhaps the most responsible defenceman on the Sharks. He averaged 23:45 against Vegas and put up three points in five games. He missed Game Three and Game Four after blocking a shot in Game Two and the squad took a dip without him in the lineup.

Goaltending

Philipp Grubauer wasn’t sharp in Game One of his series against the Flames, but he pulled it together after that and was dynamite the rest of the run. He posted a .939 save percentage with a 1.89 goals against average, allowing just 10 goals against on 163 shots.

Grubauer was pretty good at containing rebounds against Calgary, but a lot of that had to do with Colorado playing strong in front of the net. The goalie’s sideways movement isn’t the greatest and he can get caught in a problematic position crossing over to make a save. For the Sharks, this means they’ll want to keep him moving and mob the crease. Rebounds will be a factor.

The play of San Jose goalie Martin Jones wasn’t great. He allowed 13 goals on 80 shots in the first four games and put his team against the wall. When the Sharks were facing elimination, however, he tightened up. In Game Six, he made 58 saves – a franchise record – and managed to hold it over through Game Seven.

One of the ways Jones gets beat is on the rush. In the regular season, 54 percent of the goals scored on him were on the rush. That amounts to an incapacity to trail cross-ice passes despite an aggressive style. Vegas managed to fold Jones up on the rush more than a few times and that won’t work against Colorado’s attack.

Prediction

It’s all about that top line for the Avalanche. If they keep cooking, they’ll pull it off with ease. Scoring on a susceptible Jones won’t be an issue and Colorado has the dexterity to build on and maintain leads. The Sharks will want to bump up their physical presence and make the Avalanche pay for every ounce of ice they get.

San Jose is, in all likelihood, too sluggish and unreliable to defeat the quick and slippery Avalanche. Colorado wins this series in five games.

(Photo credit: NHL)

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