May 22nd, 2024

High-scoring Avalanche await winner of Stars-Golden Knights in next round after dispatching Jets

By Pat Graham, The Associated Press on May 1, 2024.

DENVER (AP) – The high-scoring, fast-flying Colorado Avalanche are so much more than the Nathan MacKinnon Show.

The supporting cast for the Avalanche played an integral role as they eliminated the Winnipeg Jets in five games during their first-round series. The Avalanche had 12 different players find the back of the net in a series where they averaged 5.6 goals a game against a team that led the NHL in fewest goals allowed during the regular season.

It’s the sort of top-to-bottom depth that has MacKinnon, a Hart Trophy candidate, recalling 2022, when the Avalanche won the third Stanley Cup championship in franchise history. The Dallas Stars or the defending champion Vegas Golden Knights will be the opponent in the next round.

“Everyone’s on the same page,” MacKinnon said.

Everything’s breaking just right for the Avalanche, too, which was best illustrated by Mikko Rantanen in Game 5. After mishandling a pass, he broke his stick in frustration, grabbed a new one and proceeded to snap out of a goal-scoring funk with his first two scores of the series. The Jets had gone 3-0 against the Avalanche during the season.

“I was going to try avoid doing that,” Rantanen said of showing his emotions. “Overall, the series was really, really good for us. I think we got better after every game. We kind of looked at things we could do better and we kind of ramped it up after each game. So really happy with the performance and keep moving now from here.”

MacKinnon is the top offensive threat every team tries to neutralize. Still, the speedy forward finished with two goals and seven assists against the Jets.

It was his teammates who took advantage of the extra attention on MacKinnon. Valeri Nichushkin (seven goals) and Artturi Lehkonen (five) became the first teammates in league history to have simultaneous five-game goal streaks to open a postseason, according to NHL Stats.

Colorado went shopping at the trade deadline to improve its depth at forward, picking up Casey Mittelstadt, Yakov Trenin and Brandon Duhaime. The Avalanche also added 39-year-old veteran Zach Parise as a free agent in January. Going back before the season, Colorado brought in Ross Colton and Miles Wood. That contingent contributed seven goals and seven assists. They were essential with Colorado missing Jonathan Drouin due to a lower-body injury.

“Everyone in that room is going to give everything they have and that’s the standard,” said MacKinnon, whose team scored 24 goals on Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck. “Whether you score or don’t, some of that stuff is out of your control, but you can control your effort and how hard you work. … Whether we win or lose, we just want to go out swinging. We had a great series in that sense.”

Goaltender Alexandar Georgiev certainly found his groove after a Game 1 performance in which he allowed seven goals. It looked as if Georgiev might be replaced by backup Justus Annunen in Game 2, before Annunen came down with an illness.

Georgiev posted a 2.00 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage over the final four games of the series.

“Everybody was so supportive,” Georgiev said. “I felt a lot of love from the room. It definitely help me. I tried to have fun and enjoy the atmosphere. It was awesome again. I thought everyone helped out defensively so much.”

The next matchup may be against the Stars, who won the Central Division. The Stars and Avalanche were neck-and-neck all season, separated by five points or fewer for 97% of the regular season, according to league research.

Should the Avalanche face the Golden Knights, it would be the third time in the last 32 years that Stanley Cup winners from the previous two seasons squared off in a series.

One thing’s for sure: Avalanche coach Jared Bednar wouldn’t mind seeing this sort of offensive firepower following his team into the next round. Only four other teams have scored at least 28 goals in a five-game NHL postseason series.

“I think that’s the best hockey we’ve played for five games in a row all season long,” Bednar said. “That’s what it takes at this time of the year.”

___

AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://www.apnews.com/hub/NHL

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