DENVER (AP)For as good as young defenseman Cale Makar has been this season, he’s looking for even more personal growth – from his playoff beard.
”Don’t expect too much from me,” the 22-year-old Colorado Avalanche standout cracked of his hard-to-see facial hair. ”Hopefully as we continue going maybe get a little bit of a mustache.”
One thing is apparent: There’s a razor-thin difference between the top-seeded Avalanche and their second-round opponent, the Vegas Golden Knights, as they start a best-of-seven series Sunday night in Denver.
These two teams were evenly matched during the regular season, splitting their eight-game series (technically, the Avs were 4-3-1 with one more point because they had an overtime loss). They tied for the most points in the league, but the Avalanche earned the coveted Presidents’ Trophy – along with home-ice advantage throughout the postseason – courtesy of a tiebreaker (more regulation wins).
It’s a matchup that seemed almost inevitable to happen, with the two teams among the FanDuel Sportsbook favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup.
”We knew that to get to where we want to go, we’d have to go through them at least in the second round,” Vegas forward Max Pacioretty said. ”Everyone believes that they’re the measuring stick team in the league.”
The Avs are well-rested, too, after finishing their four-game sweep of St. Louis last Sunday. The Golden Knights enter the series opener riding a wave of momentum after a Game 7 win over Minnesota on Friday.
”They have home ice. They won the Presidents’ Trophy, so I guess by definition that puts us in the underdog role,” Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. ”I suspect once the puck drops there won’t be much talk the rest of the way about who the underdog is or who the favorite is. It’ll be settled on the ice.”
Both teams feature elite goaltenders: Philipp Grubauer for Colorado and Marc-Andre Fleury for Vegas. Grubauer had a 1.75 goals-against average against St. Louis, while Fleury posted a 1.71 GAA versus Minnesota.
”He’s found a way to adapt his game over the years,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said of Fleury. ”He continues to play at an elite level.”
This marks the first time the Golden Knights and Avalanche meet in a postseason series. They did play in a Stanley Cup round-robin game last August, with Vegas winning 4-3 in overtime.
The stakes are now higher.
”We know them. They know us,” Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said. ”It’s going to be an exciting series.”
The Golden Knights have a chance to join some exclusive company. Only four teams in NHL history captured a Game 7 and then knocked off the league’s No. 1-ranked team in the next round. They’re looking to join Boston (2010-11 playoffs), Calgary (’03-04), Pittsburgh (’91-92) and Philadelphia (’73-74), according to research by NHL Stats. The Bruins and Flyers finished the feat in the Stanley Cup Final.
After the series-clinching victory over Minnesota, Vegas coach Peter DeBoer improved to 6-0 in Game 7s over his career. He’s the fourth head coach in NHL history to win at least six Game 7s, joining Darryl Sutter (7-3), Scotty Bowman (6-3) and Pat Burns (6-3), according to NHL Stats.
Avalanche forward Nazem Kadri has served two of eight games of his suspension for an illegal hit to the head of Blues defenseman Justin Faulk in Game 2. Kadri appealed the suspension and had a hearing Thursday.
”I haven’t heard anything,” Bednar said Saturday after practice.
The Avalanche players had a plastic chain attached to their logo that they awarded to the game’s standout performer.
Then, Nathan MacKinnon accidentally broke it after receiving the prize.
Now, the chain is made of metal.
”It’s a lot of fun giving it out,” said MacKinnon, who had six goals and three assists against St. Louis.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Getting that first goal of the game has paid off big for both teams. The Golden Knights led the league during the regular season with 31 wins when scoring first, while Colorado was second (29).
In the first round, Colorado scored first in three of four games during the sweep. Vegas was 2-1 when getting the game’s first goal, including Mattias Janmark opening the scoring in Game 7 as part of his hat trick.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.
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