Can the Avalanche take back the advantages lost to the Golden Knights?

·5-min read

Following their first five games, the entire hockey world seemed acquiescent to the idea of fast-forwarding through the Stanley Cup Playoffs and crowning the Colorado Avalanche as champions. 

Able to squash the St. Louis Blues like a blood-thirsty mosquito was one thing, but slicing through the stingiest team through the entire regular season like a hot knife through chilled butter in an eye-opening Game 1 versus the Vegas Golden Knights was another thing entirely. 

In that kick-the-extra-point beatdown in the battle of the league's two premier teams all season long in the first chapter of the West Division final, the Avalanche seemed miles ahead of their competition. Nathan MacKinnon was exhibiting paranormal, unanswerable activity. Cale Makar and Devon Toews looked like the best defensive pairing one has ever assembled. Mikko Rantanen remained unrelenting with his postseason production. Philipp Grubauer was validating his Vezina Trophy case. Hell, the Avs even emerged victorious in the game within the game after Ryan Graves had erased Mattias Janmark from the equation with a punishing hit, and later goaded Ryan Reaves into a two-game suspension for his efforts at payback.

Perfect through five outings and a step or three ahead of the team most felt would be their biggest threat on the path to the Stanley Cup Final, the conversation around the Avalanche shifted from the prospects of future success to how few games they might lose on their way to fulfilling everyone's expectations. 

Shoe-ins, it seemed, with the winner of the highly disappointing North Division next in line, cash poured in on Colorado in the betting market, and one of the clearest favourites we have seen historically at that point in the tournament had emerged.

Fools made of us all, now a week later everything has changed.

The counterpunch that folks weren't sure the Golden Knights would be able to muster has snowballed into a flurry of body and head blows with the precision and accuracy that Jake Paul is convinced he saw through the Paul-coloured corrective lenses he was wearing ringside for his brother's exhibition bout versus Floyd Mayweather on Sunday night.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JUNE 06:  Head coach Jared Bednar of the Colorado Avalanche handles bench duties behind Kiefer Sherwood #44, Tyson Jost #17, Carl Soderberg #34, Nathan MacKinnon #29 and Gabriel Landeskog #92 in the third period in Game Four of the Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena on June 6, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Golden Knights defeated the Avalanche 5-1.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar has been less than thrilled with the output from his top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Dominance through eight of the last nine periods, the pendulum has swung entirely, and devastatingly, in favour of the Golden Knights. With a win that can be viewed as nearly an equal to the loss they suffered in Game 1, the Golden Knights completed a set on back-to-back victories on home ice over the weekend to even the second-round series at two games apiece. 

It's almost as though Colorado is fortunate to be in the position it is now in. Had it not been for the brilliant performance from Grubauer and an unsightly infraction assessed in overtime in Game 2, Vegas may just be on the verge of advancing in a series, and following that same breezy path to the Stanley Cup Final that most believed the Avalanche were to take. 

By every measure, it's truly staggering just how much things have changed.

In the nine-plus periods contested since Game 1, eight have unequivocally belonged to the Golden Knights. They have scored 10 goals compared to six against, or an aggregate scoreline that reflects accurately on the all-situations expected goals advantage of 9.99 to 5.79 in Games 2-4 as computed by Natural Stat Trick

Contributing to that damning data and the idea that the series now belongs to the underdog, the Golden Knights hold 57.7 percent of the total shot attempts, 57.2 percent of the scoring chances, and a staggering 65.4 percent of the total shots since the Avalanche's Game 1 win. 

It's all very impressive, and something clearly evident through anyone's eye test as well. But what might be most impressive, and certainly less obvious, is how the Golden Knights have brought MacKinnon back down to earth. 

MacKinnon continued to build on his case as the league's top postseason performer in the league right now in Game 1, scoring arguably the goal of the postseason, adding one more to go along with an assist, and totalling six scoring chances, including three that would be considered high danger. It wasn't the same Nate, but he remained reasonably threatening in Game 2, eventually setting up the overtime winner. 

However, once the series shifted to Vegas, and over the last two games, MacKinnon has essentially been a ghost.

He was particularly invisible in Game 3, managing 0.0 expected individual goals at five-on-five. His outage, and what little the top line produced, prompted Jared Bednar to call out his superstar top line in his post-game remarks after only the first loss the team suffered in the postseason. 

It did not produce the desired effect for Bednar, MacKinnon, or his linemates Mikko Rantanen or Gabriel Landeskog, who, despite performing slightly better in Game 4, still failed to meet its normal standard, losing their battle again versus their equivalents on the Vegas side.

The combination of Mark Stone, Chandler Stephenson and Max Pacioretty have proven themselves as the superior line in the last three games, and the key to the series while eating away at the production of MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog. It's allowed the original misfit line of Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson to rack up production, and tilt the series, versus a Colorado middle six now suffering in the absence of veteran centre Nazem Kadri. 

With Kadri's return still a few games away, the Avalanche must concoct some sort of scheme to create some of the advantages they have lost as the series shifts back to Colorado. 

It will be easier to re-create the more favourable conditions that the MacKinnon line feasted on in Game 1 with last change now back in their hands for Game 5. But it seems clear that at some point, MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog will have to win their matchup against the Vegas top line in order the re-establish advantages in the series.

If not, well, then we can start the premature discussion about crowning the Golden Knights.

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