Welcome to Pete’s Postmortems, where we’ll attempt to make sense of how and why things went wrong for the teams that have been eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Colorado Avalanche — who won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best regular-season team and entered the playoffs as the odds-on favorite to hoist the Stanley Cup — are out. The Vegas Golden Knights managed to erase the Avs in six games, and what an entertaining six games they were.
This series carried a massive amount of hype heading into the second round. It featured two of the very best teams the NHL had to offer, and we had been waiting for them to meet in the playoffs for a few years. They seemed to be on an inevitable collision course. Yet, despite the sky-high hype, the matchup somehow managed to exceed expectations. It was one of the more riveting and engrossing playoff series I can remember in a long time.
After Colorado jumped out to a 2-0 series lead, extending their playoff win streak to six straight games in the process, they then lost four in a row to see their title hopes come crashing down. So, where did things go wrong in a series this competitive? Let’s explore a few difference-makers.
MacKinnon went cold
Fair or not, Nathan MacKinnon is going to take a lot of heat for how cold he went in the middle of this series. As the engine for Colorado’s offensive attack, MacKinnon has put up gaudy postseason numbers through most of his career — he had 26 goals and 63 points in 44 career playoff games heading into the second round — and he has set the bar pretty high for himself.
He got off to a great start through the first couple of games against Vegas, recording two goals and four points, and that appeared to be bad news for the Golden Knights. However, he was barely even noticeable as he went without a point in Games 3 through 5. It was the first time since 2019 that MacKinnon had gone three straight games without a point.
He finally broke the slump with two assists in Game 6, and that helped him finish the series as a point-per-game player (two goals, four assists). But MacKinnon didn’t score a goal after Game 1. And there’s no question that the Avalanche would have liked to see a little bit more from him, nor is it a coincidence that once he went quiet Colorado started losing.
Of course, he didn’t just disappear for no reason. You also have to give credit to Vegas for making MacKinnon’s life difficult. The Chandler Stephenson-Mark Stone-Max Pacioretty line did a great job of smothering the Avs’ top line for most of the series, and that is certainly no easy task. The Golden Knights’ greatest team strength is arguably its forechecking and ability to pressure the puck in all three zones. Their ability to skate with and disrupt Colorado’s most dangerous weapons ultimately made the biggest difference in the series.
Inability to protect leads
Although this was a very competitive and enjoyable series, Colorado was outplayed for a good portion of it, especially toward the end of games. One issue that kept popping up for the Avs was an inability to hold onto leads and sustain momentum.
After taking a 2-0 series lead, Colorado was pushing to take Game 3 as well. The Avalanche held a 2-1 lead as time wound down in the third period, but they couldn’t quite manage to hold off Vegas long enough. The Knights netted the equalizer with just over five minutes to go. Less than a minute later, they added the eventual game-winner.
After largely being outplayed in Games 2 through 4, Colorado looked to put together a bounce-back performance in Game 5. The Avs had more jump and looked to be in the driver’s seat with a 2-0 lead heading into the third period. But several sloppy mistakes from Colorado in the final frame allowed Vegas to once again deliver a late surge. The Knights scored in the first minute of the third period, then added the equalizer just a few minutes later. Less than a minute into overtime, Ryan Graves unleashed a few ill-advised attempts from the blue line, and Vegas converted going the other way.
In the elimination Game 6, the Avalanche needed a fast start to provide some confidence while taking some air out of the opponent’s building. They got that quick start when Devon Toews scored on Colorado’s first shot just 23 seconds into the game. Unfortunately for the Avs, that momentum and confidence didn’t last long.
Nick Holden (of all people) went on to score for Vegas less than a minute later, restoring life into the T-Mobile Arena crowd. Later in the game, Colorado found a game-tying goal toward the end of the second period that would have boosted morale heading into the final frame, but Vegas took the lead back with 18 seconds remaining in the period. It was a brutal gut punch that the Avalanche never recovered from.
This series was incredibly entertaining and it featured some big pendulum swings, but more often than not, the Golden Knights seemed to be the team that was better at countering when it mattered most.
Depth advantage went to Vegas
The series featured two of the best and most talented rosters in hockey, including tons of star power on both sides. But, as it often does in the Stanley Cup playoffs, timely depth contributions played a role in separating the two sides.
With MacKinnon’s top line stifled for a chunk of the series, Colorado needed the secondary/ancillary pieces to step up. The Avs did what they could and you can’t say that depth was a failure for them, but it certainly felt like Vegas held the advantage there. In the elimination Game 6, the Knights got goals from Holden, Keegan Kolesar and William Carrier.
Here’s an interesting note on Vegas’ depth from The Athletic’s Jesse Granger:
“Vegas has used 25 different players and received at least a point from 21 of them in the postseason; both are the highest of any team remaining.”
It’s also worth pointing out that the Golden Knights’ second line was very, very good, and it’s hard to escape the idea that Nazem Kadri could have made a difference in this series for Colorado. Unfortunately, for the second time in three years, Kadri finished a playoff run in a suit because he was suspended for a reckless hit. We know Kadri can be a high-impact player in the postseason, but he has cost himself too many playoff games and hurt Colorado by not being involved in this series.