Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

The Colorado Avalanche make medicine sick

The Avs’ top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog continue to make it futile for their opponents to even show up.
The Avs’ top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog continue to make it futile for their opponents to even show up.
Image: Getty Images

It isn’t much of a story when a preseason favorite starts rising to the top of the standings. Most everyone thought the Colorado Avalanche would be a Cup contender this year, playing 56 preseason games and one warm-up series before a West Division final with the Vegas Golden Knights that will contain enough speed and explosions to be licensed by LucasFilm. And that’s how it looks today. But when a team is gleefully feeding its opponents’ organs back to them the way the Avalanche have been in March, it’s worth a look.

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The Avs won their sixth in a row yesterday, turning the Minnesota Wild (another team I’ve seemingly motherfucked) into a boiled reduction, to the tune of 6-0. To spice things up, the Avs had six different goal scorers, 10 different players to register a point, and five with multiple points. It was their eighth win in the last 10, and left them three points behind the Knights in the West while separating themselves from the rest of the division.

That’s been the tune of late, along with total domination among the metrics. In yesterday’s win, the Avs had 66 percent of the attempts and 66 percent of the expected-goals. For the non-analytics inclined or dismissive, that’s total domination. And it’s what the Avs have been doing during this stretch every night. They’ve thrown up Corsi or xG percentages (attempts at goal) of 71, 72, 70, and even an 80! If full houses were allowed, fans at one side of the arena might be asking for a portion of their money back because they would have missed two full periods of action.

Yesterday, the Avs gave up 31 shots, which doesn’t seem like a big deal when they won by a touchdown. It was the first time they’d given up 30+ shots since January 31st. In a three-game stretch during this streak — two against the Coyotes and one against the Kings, admittedly teams that are only allowed circles of paper — the Avs surrendered 46 shots over the three games total. The Avs have been more smothering than home-school parents.

Overall on the season, the Avs are so far and away the best metric-team in the league to a laughable point. Not only do they have the best Corsi-percentage and expected-goal-percentage, but they also average the most attempts per game while allowing the fewest. Ditto expected-goals. So in essence, they’re the best offensive and defensive team in the NHL right now, at even-strength. Oh, and just for good measure, they have the second-best penalty-kill in the league, too.

As always, this is spearheaded by the Avs’ top line — Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. While MacKinnon has been providing MVP-level performances for a few years now, and Rantanen not too far behind, this might be his best. That’s if you look at the metrics, where MacKinnon’s line has controlled the attempts and chances to the point of being around 65 percent in both Corsi and xG percent, by far the best marks of MacK’s career. They’re also the best in the league. In fact, in a truly disgusting matter, the six best individual analytic statistics all belong to Avalanche players.

The difference is that head coach Jared Bednar has been able to start MacKinnon’s line in the offensive zone more often this year, from which MacKinnon and friends simply don’t let the play ever escape, because of bolstered second and third lines. The addition of Brandon Saad to combine with center Nazem Kadri has given the Avs a hybrid-scoring and checking line that’s about as pleasant to play against as popping zits (and left my heart to collapse in on itself at the thought of Hawks GM Stan Bowman being the first GM in any sport to lose a trade involving the same player three times!). They’re carrying metrics around 60 percent as well. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, along with Matt Calvert, have been the mine-sweepers for the Avs, starting the most shifts in their own end and doing the hard miles. They’re still carrying Corsis and xG ratings in the mid-50s, meaning that they keep turning the ice over, which means Bendar doesn’t have to use MacKinnon against other teams’ top lines, which means he can turn third- and fourth-liners into paste.

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The real feature of the Avs is their nitrogen-infused defense. With Cale Makar, Devon Toews, Sam Girard, Bowen Byram, the Avs can break down any forecheck and get out into open-ice. Perhaps most impressive is that only Girard has been healthy all season (and is having a stealth Norris-worthy season). It’s not a coincidence that Toews and Makar have been healthy of late, causing this destruction.

So why aren’t the Avs at the top of the West and NHL standings? Because this is hockey, which has never been interested in logic in any form. Philipp Grubauer has given up just three goals in his last six starts, but his whole season hasn’t looked like that. The Avs are bottom-10 in even-strength save-percentage, though obviously that’s arcing up as well. Secondly, the Avs are only middle of the pack when it comes to shooting-percentage. Should that rise in any way, you’ll be seeing a lot more of the six- and seven-spots they’ve been putting up of late. The Avs are also bottom-10 in shooting-percentage on the power play, even though they create the second-most chances with the man-advantage. If their finishing starts to emulate their chance-creation on the power play, they will truly be a doomsday gun.

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If there’s one warning light, it’s that the Avs have basically gone without a backup goalie all season, with something called Hunter Miska only making five starts in a jam-packed season. The Avs can’t have Grubauer gasping for air come May. Pavel Francouz, last year’s back-up, has no timetable to return from injury.

But when your biggest concern is your backup goalie, that’s about as close to hockey utopia as you can be.

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Update: The Avs traded for Jonas Johansson from Buffalo to address the backup goalie problem.

We can't be too careful. Two guys in an airport...talking? It's a little fishy.