These were looking like the Colorado Avalanche’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
Nathan MacKinnon was that one true megastar left. Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog were being their bad selves. Nazem Kadri wasn’t cross checking folks in the face, and was instead tormenting his former franchise by displaying the postseason form that everyone knew he always possessed. Cale Makar was dancing. Philipp Grubauer was a rock.
It seemed they’d issued a warning to the rest of the league when they closed out the ultimately non-competitive Arizona Coyotes in the opening round of the playoffs with consecutive 7-1 thrashings.
These Avs meant business in the bubble.
And yet now, three days into the second round, suddenly the hottest thing in hockey is in real danger of flaming out.
The Dallas Stars scored five unanswered goals over a space of seven minutes in the second period in Game 2 on Monday night to win 5-2, and now lead 2-0 in the series as considerable underdogs over the team many have considered the smart money to win the Stanley Cup.
It seems everything has gone the way of the Stars through the first two games of the series — their fortune both earned and incidental.
In Game 1, the Stars were better than the Avalanche, who, to a man through the depths of the lineup, seemed to have made the assumption that MacKinnon would simply carry them through into the next round.
But for as impressive as the Stars were in a contest dominated by their big-money forwards, the loss was made far worse for the Avalanche by losing two key contributors to injury.
First the minutes-eating Erik Johnson was struck by a shot, and tried multiple times to return before having to call it a night. Then Grubauer collapsed in the crease after appearing to injure his groin when extending to make a save early in the second period. While losing Johnson may be manageable — and perhaps even advantageous if it means more of Makar – it remains to be seen if the Avs can survive what’s being called an indefinite absence for Grubauer.
Postseason debutant Pavel Francouz is the only legitimate option for the Avalanche, who are dressing Michael Hutchinson as a backup. Francouz allowed four goals on 27 shots in Game 2, and now six goals on 46 shots through nearly five periods of work in the series. To this point, he’s simply failed to provide winning goaltending, let alone measure up to his counterpart in the series, and the man who just so happens to be the second option himself, Anton Khudobin.
When the Avalanche arrived with real purpose in the early moments in Game 2, Khudobin was brilliant. He made 19 saves in the first period alone, keeping his team in the game after the Avs ran up a 20-6 shot advantage through the opening 20 minutes. Khudobin finished the game with 39 saves, and made the final 15 stops in a contest where the Avs registered 74 attempts at goal.
What’s either concerning or encouraging depending on which way you look at it from the perspective of the Avalanche, but still interesting nonetheless, is that Dallas isn’t winning these games in what would be considered its usual style.
The best defensive team in the conference through the course of the season was also highly deficient from an offensive perspective, finishing third-to-last in total scoring. Yet somehow, Dallas has scored five goals in each of the first two games of the series. And with 17 goals in their last three games, the Stars have emerged as the highest-scoring team since the traditional phase of the postseason began, delivering an average of almost four goals per game.
Against Colorado, these goals have been earned, despite what the data on expected goals might suggest. However, the sequence that led to the Stars erasing the Avalanche’s 2-0 lead with power-play goals scored less than a minute apart would, too, slot into the category of fortunate.
By postseason standards, the 5-on-3 opportunity that reversed the course of Game 2 would be considered gift-wrapped, and particularly unfair given that the worst infraction from that sequence seemed to be the uncalled slash Corey Perry delivered to the padding of Francouz.
Even if their third goal took a ridiculous bounce off the chest of Alexander Radulov, and the fourth may not have even crossed the line at all, at some point, though, credit has to be given to the Stars for seizing the first two games of the series.
And however they arrived to this point, the Avs were always going to have to display the sort of resolve that all champions must.
It just has to come earlier than expected, or what was supposed to be won’t be close.
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