Nathan McKinnon is tired of talking about second-round exits. Now he has another excellent opportunity to change that narrative.
The dynamic Colorado Avalanche center expressed dismay after being bounced by the Vegas Golden Knights last season, and he and his teammates have been on a mission ever since.
After sweeping the Nashville Predators in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Avalanche is back in familiar territory, ready to take on the St. Louis Blues in a series that begins Tuesday night at the Ball Arena in Denver.
Avalanche is viewed by many as the hot favorite having finished first in the Western Conference and second overall after the Florida Panthers this season.
But McKinnon and his co-workers know they will need to shoot all cylinders to avoid a second-round elimination for the fourth consecutive season.
McKinnon used to be very productive in the playoffs, racking up 33 goals and 75 points in 54 career games.
The trend continued into the opening round, as he scored five goals and six points against the Predators.
It’s very difficult to contain McKinnon, but he is expected to see a healthy dose of Blues center Ryan O’Reilly over the next several weeks.
This is not an easy task, but one that McKinnon understands very well.
“She’s been too tall. Just normal. I’ve been competing with Ryan for seven years now,” MacKinnon told reporters in Denver. “He’s got two Selkes (as the best defensive striker in the NHL) and he’s really good all around, so it’s going to be a really tough game, for sure.
“Positionally speaking, there is no cheating in his game. He wouldn’t sacrifice defense trying to get points or anything else. He has a really good stick, a really good guy. Just a smart player. It’s really hard to play against.”
McKinnon has a huge influence on his rating.
O’Reilly doesn’t cheat on offense, but he still finds a way to deliver in that area, contributing four powerful goals and seven points in six games against the Minnesota Wild — giving him 13 goals and 30 points in the past 25 tipped playoff game.
When the lights are on and the lights are even brighter, 2019 winner Conn Smythe looks like the best player in the final at his best.
Even if O’Reilly and the Blues find a way to keep MacKinnon in check (relatively, of course), the avalanche is far from a single show.
They have plenty of offensive arms scattered all over the front group and a defensive arm that includes Cal Makar (who led the team 10 points in the opening round) and Devon Toyos.
Colorado has more depth than in years past, with seven scorers with 20 goals in the lineup, but the Blues lead the NHL in that category with nine.
“They’re so deep, it’s going to be a huge challenge for us attackers, just winning games,” McKinnon told reporters in Denver. “They distributed (the scoring) really well. It’s not like there are two people we have to worry about. There are nine or 10. We have to be really strong defensively, we have to be good with the disc and (make) good decisions in the neutral and the zone.” O”.
Clever puck management numbers will be a high priority for both clubs in the series, as will Discipline, as both teams have a killer game that could be the teams in what is expected to be a hotly contested series.
The Blues are a team with a lot of experience in the tournament, and while they pride themselves on playing a physical game, they are also a more skilled side than the team that was swept up in the avalanche last season – thanks in part to Pavel Bukhnevich’s arrival on a deal with the New York Rangers and Brandon Saad as a free agent. , the appearances of local strikers Robert Thomas and Jordan Kerro, and the presence of David Byron (five goals, nine points in the opening round) available in full health after his absence from the series. last year.
“They don’t need you to make so many mistakes in order to hurt you,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar told reporters earlier this week. “Even if they don’t feel like it, they can be really pushy.”
Having scored his career-highs of goals (20) and points (77) in 72 games, Thomas is limited to three assists against Wild and will look to attack.
The Blues feel comfortable playing the underdog, but this is not a team that will be content to keep things close. They are a veteran squad with an eye on winning their second Stanley Cup in four seasons.
“It’s a different team, a different mentality,” Blues coach Craig Behrop told reporters in St. Louis. “The guys are going to be motivated anyway, whether we’re underdogs or not. We don’t really look at these things. (Avalanche) has been a great year. They’ve gone so long without losing and they have a really good team there. We’re going to have to do a lot of things well. correct “.
It’s also a different defense legion for the blues, even if Marco Scandella and Torey Krug’s availability remains up in the air, at least at the beginning of the series.
Colton Paraiko, Justin Falk and Nick Lady (when coming back from injury in the last three games of the Wild series) scored some big minutes, even as the Blues turned into a squad of 11 strikers and seven blues after game four. .
Although Avalanche has made a solid commitment since training camp to do a better job in defense and shape to be the gold standard in the West for the foreseeable future due to core pieces already being closed for years to come, there is an increased level of urgency associated with the qualifying round.
With Nazim Kadri, Valery Neshushkin, Andrei Burakovsky and goalkeeper Darcy Quimper among the nine unencumbered clients suspended on Avalanche’s list, it’s time to take that next step.