The adage is simple because it’s true: good teams find a way to win games.
That’s what the Colorado Avalanche did to open round two on Tuesday night, squeaking out an overtime victory in Game 1 versus a St. Louis Blues team they otherwise should dominate to earn themselves an early series lead.
It should not have been close, really. The Avalanche more than doubled-up the Blues in the shot tally in Game 1, chucking 54 pucks at Jordan Binnington while their own goaltender, Darcy Kuemper, fielded only 25. Those lopsided totals pretty much told the story of the game from a possession standpoint , with the Avalanche generating a whopping 74.93 percent of the expected goals and 76.79 percent of the scoring chances in all situations despite the one-goal difference.
On paper, it should have been a route. But it was not. The Blues, thanks to some timely scoring and a resurgent performance by Binnington, pushed the game into overtime and came achingly close to shocking the perceived Cup favorites.
But, as the saying goes, good teams find ways to win games – even those in which the Hockey Gods seem to be rooting against them.
And that’s exactly what the Avalanche managed to do.
The depth that coach Jared Bednar has at his disposal played a big part. It’s cavernous, and only got deeper once the trade deadline passed, too.
Superstars like Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Devon Toews, and Mikko Rantanen are the obvious crown jewels of the Avs organizational tree, giving them legitimately elite production at nearly every positional group, while key contributors such as captain Gabriel Landeskog and Nazem Kadri provide enviable secondary scoring.
But the thing that tips the scales in the Avalanche’s favor is their lower-lineup reinforcements, the role players who dominate in depth minutes when their stars are being hard-matched.
For example, you could ask any hockey fan to list the best players on Colorado’s roster on the spot and you’d probably get six or seven deep before Valeri Nichushkin’s name was brought up. It’s hard to argue otherwise, either. But Nichushkin is a 25-goal scorer, a winger who also provides the Avalanche with elite defensive results while logging nearly 20 minutes per game in a myriad of different situations.
And he’s an afterthought!
There are others, too.
Artturi Lehkonen, who came over from Montreal at the trade deadline, provides a similar punch to Nichushkin on both sides of the puck and managed to fit seamlessly into the Avalanche top-six down the final stretch of the season. Lehkonen would likely be even lower down that hockey fan’s list and yet his performance is crucial to the Avalanche’s success, with Lehkonen once again giving Bednar a possession driving, two-way winger to throw out in whichever situation he pleases.
The blueline is another story, too.
The Avs are blessed with the likes of Makar and Toews as arguably the best one-two punch in the league, while Erik Johnson and young stud Bowen Byram compose a formidable bottom pair. But even the supposed “weak link” second pairing of Samuel Girard and Josh Manson (the latter of whom was another deft deadline acquisition), who struggled together in the regular season have reached another level in the playoffs, boasting 58.11 and 59.98 percent expected goal shares through five postseason games, respectively.
Manson even scored the overtime winner on Tuesday night, helping the Avalanche generate 76.75 percent of the expected goals at even strength when he was on the ice.
That’s how good this Avs team is. Even their “weak links” are giving them above-average on-ice value, shoring up any roster deficiencies that previously held them back from that elusive Stanley Cup.
And they need to reach that summit this year, too.
The Avalanche will be good next season regardless of how things play out. But it’s unlikely that they will be this good, with the likes of Kadri, Nichushkin, Manson, Kuemper, and Andre Burakovsky set to hit unrestricted free agency this summer, while Lehkonen and fellow depth winger Nicolas Aube-Kubel will become restricted free agents in need of a new deal.
GM Joe Sakic can not keep everyone, as much as he’d probably like to. And while the Avs’ core of stars gives them the elite talent necessary to be competitive regardless of the pieces around them, this roster – on paper, and, so far, on the ice – is special. Special, yet fleeting, with the Avalanche possibly losing a key chunk of those effective middle-to-bottom-sixers that make them so dangerous to the realities of the salary cap.
It’s now or never, really. And after dusting the Predators with little effort before dispatching a Blues team in Game 1 that, in previous years, would have likely ridden an absurd goaltending performance and some enviable puck luck to a stunning series lead, there’s no better time than the present.
These Avs look ready. Now they just need to keep proving it.