Power ranking Avalanche’s possible first-round playoff opponents
After the Avalanche’s 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh on Wednesday, coach Jared Bednar acknowledged that winning the division has its perks. Colorado’s goal, at one point merely to survive its injuries and make the playoffs, is now to earn a more ambitious first-place finish.
The eight playoff teams in the West are all but decided, barring any late drama involving Nashville or Calgary. The remaining games are all about the bracket puzzle. We ranked the Avalanche’s seven playoff challengers in order from easiest hypothetical first-round matchup (7) to hardest (1).
7. Winnipeg Jets: The Central will have trouble catching Vegas, but this is the incentive to win the conference. Winnipeg has fallen off a cliff after a good start to the season. The Jets are below .500 in their last 30 games, making them easily the least intimidating playoff team in the NHL. They have an elite penalty kill and a towering goalie, but the Avs have a great power play and a proclivity for beating up Connor Hellebuyck.
6. Seattle Kraken: Looks like the reward for winning the Central is being the villain of the first playoff series in Kraken history. Pundits thought Seattle would fade after its strong start, but with balanced scoring and low-event hockey to limit chances, the expansion darlings have stuck around.
5. Minnesota Wild: Second and third in the Central will meet in the first round. That makes the Wild a safe bet. Minnesota boasts the third-best scoring defense in the NHL, bolstered by John Klingberg at the deadline. Whether its offense can keep up without the injured Kirill Kaprizov is an alarming unknown, though. Colorado is more talented, but Minnesota is hotter. It has points in 18 of the last 20 games, including a 14-game streak.
4. Vegas Golden Knights: Why is the team with the best record in the West not at the bottom of the list? For starters, Vegas is Colorado’s least likely first-round opponent, so the exact center of this list is a fitting spot to bury the least relevant discussion. On either side of the Golden Knights are three teams that are hereby deemed favorable matchups for the Avalanche, and three that are deemed unfavorable.
Vegas is weird. Since the All-Star break, it has the seventh-worst expected goals percentage (46.51%) in the NHL. And yet, its record since then is 15-3-2. The Golden Knights are defying the metrics, but they’ve had a somewhat streaky season. Mark Stone’s injury is a big loss. They also draw the fewest penalties in the league.
3. Los Angeles Kings: Also unlikely in the first round, but a sleeper to make a deep run. L.A. has won both matchups with the Avalanche this season. The Kings are balanced, deep and defensively unflappable. They gave Colorado’s power play nightmares earlier this month.
Most importantly, they’ve gotten better throughout the season. Since Jan. 1, they’re 20-7-4 after entering the new year with a minus-six goal differential. Since the All-Star break, they own the best point percentage in the NHL (13-2-3, plus-28 goals), the best xGF% in the West (57.42%) and the best high-danger scoring chance rate in the West (59.89%). Goaltending is the sore thumb, but if Joonas Korpisalo keeps up his recent success, a team that stretched Edmonton to seven games last year will be even more potent in these playoffs.
2. Dallas Stars: They’ve led the Central most of the season. They have the most complete roster in the West, complete with a young superstar scorer (Jason Robertson), an experienced core (Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski, Tyler Seguin), trade deadline forward depth (Max Domi, Evgenii Dadonov) and high-end defensemen (Miro Heiskanen). But what sets Dallas apart from Vegas and other contenders in the West is a proven playoff game-changer in net, Jake Oettinger.
1. Edmonton Oilers: Earning a higher seed but being forced to go through Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the first round is a tough break for anyone. The Oilers are likely to finish third in the Pacific, but there’s still the chance they slip into the first wild card spot, which would probably mean a matchup with the winner of the Central.
Edmonton’s 31.2% power play demands all the attention — it’s the best in the NHL by a colossal 6% margin — but this is a sneaky good 5-on-5 team as well. With a season-long sample size, the Oilers are second in the West in 5-on-5 scoring and first in high-danger scoring chance rate (55.94%). They’re better than Dallas, Vegas and Colorado in xGF% and SCF%. And since Jan. 1? They’re second in the NHL in xGF% (56.89%), SCF% (56.2%) and HDCF% (59.4%), trailing only Carolina in all three categories. Defense is still a weak spot, but sometimes the best defense is offense. And the best offense is the best player in the world submitting a career year.
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