The two teams with the NHL’s best regular-season records square off Sunday when the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights open their second-round playoff series in Denver.
The Avalanche and Golden Knights finished tied atop the league standings after the 56-game regular season, each recording 82 points. Colorado finished first due to more regulation-time victories, edging Vegas in the West Division.
The similarities don’t end there. While the Avalanche were the top offensive squad, Vegas finished third in goals scored. Defensively, the Golden Knights were the best team and the Avalanche were third. Further underscoring how even these clubs are, they also split their season series with four wins apiece.
About the only difference before the puck drops on the best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoff series is how the teams reached the second round. The Avalanche swept the St. Louis Blues in their opening-round affair, while the Golden Knights needed seven games to dispatch the Minnesota Wild.
That means the Avalanche have been waiting for the series to start since last Sunday. Vegas, however, has played three games since then — losing twice before advancing Friday night with a 6-2 victory at home.
“We knew 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. “We’re going to get each other here pretty fresh. We both had the same record and they got us on (the tiebreaker), but everyone believes they’re the measuring stick team in the league.
“They’ve been sitting at home, probably resting up, but no matter what, we’ve got to make life difficult, especially on their star players.”
The focus will be Colorado’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, who combined for nine goals and 24 points in their four-game sweep of the Blues.
That said, the Golden Knights are potent, too, as displayed by how they broke open the deciding game against Minnesota. After the Wild scored on the power play 4:35 into the second period, Vegas scored twice in the second and twice in the third to win going away.
“I think (it’s about) focusing on our game too, and what we do well,” Vegas defenseman Zach Whitecloud said. “Executing that game plan and managing pucks, doing all the little things that make us a good team.”
The Avalanche don’t know whether they’ll have suspended forward Nazem Kadri at any point in the series. Kadri is appealing the eight-game suspension he was handed for an illegal hit to the head of defenseman Justin Faulk in the second game of the Blues series. He’s served two games and is awaiting word whether his suspension will be reduced.
Regardless of whether and when Kadri returns, though, the focus in Denver is to make amends for last year’s disappointment of a second-round elimination at the hands of the Dallas Stars (which prevented a Denver-Vegas meeting in the Western Conference final).
“Every season that goes on and every playoff series that you get eliminated, your hunger and want goes up that much higher,” Landeskog said. “That’s the difference with our group (from last season to this season).
“We’re that much more hungry, that much more competitive, for sure. Obviously we were competitive last year as well, but you realize that you only have so many chances.”
Having nearly a week between games before suiting up could be the difference in what could be the best series of the playoffs — coincidentally, the first-ever meeting in the playoffs between the Avalanche and Golden Knights.
“I’m sure (my teammates) are really appreciating their bodies healing and resting,” MacKinnon said. “We’re going to be ready to go. We’re working really hard in practice … and we’re excited to get going.”
–Field Level Media