Sports

The Most Electrifying NHL Team in Years Is Storming Toward the Stanley Cup

Their perfections and their flaws make these guys a total joy to watch.

MacKinnon and teammates raise their arms and cheer in celebration around the goal, as Oilers frown and crouch, dejected, around them.
Nathan MacKinnon celebrates with his teammates after scoring a goal against the Edmonton Oilers during the third period in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on Monday, in Edmonton, Alberta. Derek Leung/Getty Images

The scariest trait a hockey team can have in June is inevitability. It is a hard thing to build up, because it requires coming in waves so relentless that they remove any doubt from an inherently doubtful time on the calendar. So many things can go awry in playoff hockey. A bouncing puck goes the wrong way here, or a goaltender loses his mojo there.

Those things have befallen the Colorado Avalanche at certain points in recent weeks, but here they are anyway: fresh off two sweeps in three playoff rounds and four wins away from their first Stanley Cup since general manager Joe Sakic was the captain in 2001. So far, there has been no doubt about the Avs’ superiority, because they have had so much more in the tank than everybody they’ve played, most recently the poor Edmonton Oilers. In sum, there has never been a sports team whose playing style better fits its name than the 2022 Avalanche.

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Game 4 of the Western Conference Final on Monday night was a good case study in the Avs’ inevitability. The Oilers kept poking their nose in front, building leads of 3–1 and 4–2. When the Avalanche roared back for a 5–4 lead late in the third period, the Oilers knotted it again with just over three minutes left. Edmonton was resilient and had two future Hall of Fame forwards, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who looked resolved to not let their season die. (McDavid had 3 points, and Draisaitl had 4 despite what we may soon learn was about 28 different broken body parts.) But overtime felt like a matter of time for Colorado, and it was one: Forward Artturi Lehkonen smashed a rebound into an empty net 79 seconds into it, formalizing the Avalanche’s place in a Cup Final that will start some time next week.

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The clincher illustrated another characteristic of the Avalanche: They are pure fun. They are a bigger joy to watch than any team I can remember that wasn’t my own, for reasons of both perfection and imperfection. They are a firewagon team that loves to throw the puck up the ice and get defensemen involved in their offense. They have one of the fastest skaters ever, Nathan MacKinnon, a true blink-and-you’ll-miss-him kind of talent whom many defensemen have indeed missed during these playoffs. Defenseman Cale Makar plays like a fourth forward but somehow does it without sacrificing much in his own end of the ice. He scored a preposterous 86 points this year and is ticketed for an all-time great career. The Avalanche also have sketchy goaltending, which opens up the possibility for chaos in any game they play. They are probably about to beat either the New York Rangers or the threepeat-attempting Tampa Bay Lightning, but they are definitely about to make the last series of the season a complete blast to witness.

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The Avalanche’s engine is an incredible scoring attack that, when it’s ticking, rivals anything the NHL has seen in decades. For the first 33 games of the season, a FiveThirtyEight analysis showed, Colorado’s 4.33 goals per game were 1.29 more than the league average—pacing to be the biggest scoring gap between one team and the average since the 1985-86 Oilers, who had Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, and Mark Messier. (Everyone on that list except Messier exceeded 100 points for the season.) The Avalanche were running that torrid pace for nearly half a season despite MacKinnon playing just two games in November. The Avs’ scoring slowed down in the second half, and they finished the regular season averaging 3.76 goals. In the modern NHL, they were never going to score 4.33 goals per game over an entire year. (The Florida Panthers’ 4.14 this year turned out to be comfortably the most of the century in an 82-game season.) Injuries to MacKinnon’s fellow star forwards Gabriel Landeskog and Nazem Kadri did not boost the offense. But maybe the team tightened its mechanics a bit in preparation for the playoffs.

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That level of explosion has always been sitting there, waiting for the fully operational Avalanche to tap into it when they need it. They hardly could’ve done more damage to the Oilers, who had the misfortune of playing the Avs at the wrong time and with the wrong goaltender (the overmatched veteran Mike Smith) standing between themselves and ruin. Edmonton scored a respectable 13 goals in four games, including 11 total in just Games 1 and 4. It did not matter, because the Avalanche decided to rev up their scoring production to peak capacity. They scored eight goals in a Game 1 shootout, not minding that they gave up six. They pitched a 4–0 shutout in Game 2. Kadri got hurt in Game 3, which turned out to be the series’ one true defensive struggle, but the Avs pulled through anyway, 3–2. Their depth showed up in the end     , when third-line center J.T. Compher scored the winning goal coming out of the penalty box:

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Colorado closed things out on Monday with more firepower. Makar had 5 points and was all over the ice. Landeskog and Lehkonen had 3 apiece, and the team got more goals from MacKinnon, Makar’s defensive partner Devon Toews, and Finnish finisher Mikko Rantanen.

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They are doing things in these playoffs that only a couple of teams in their era have even approached. The Avalanche’s 22 goals against the Oilers are tied for eighth-most in a four-game series in league history. They scored 21 when they swept the Nashville Predators in the first round. The 2008 Detroit Red Wings (21), 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins (20), and 2011 Boston Bruins (20), all eventual Cup winners, are the only other teams of the current century who are near the top of that record leaderboard—aside from last year’s Avalanche, who also did it.* It is otherwise full of teams from long ago—mostly the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s—when goals were much easier to come by. That the Avs have exceeded five goals per game in two different playoff sweeps proves that they are time travelers.

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They’ve needed the goals, because they still give up a decent amount despite their tremendous defensive corps and ability to control the puck. Their goaltending situation is tenuous. Darcy Kuemper had an excellent regular season, but he’s a 32-year-old journeyman without a long track record near the top of the league. Coach Jared Bednar yanked him in Game 1 against the Oilers (apparently with vision issues) and called on backup Pavel Francouz, another 32-year-old journeyman, who has spent most of his career in Czech leagues. Francouz is the man for now, and he’s been plenty serviceable after Kuemper struggled      while the Avalanche won games in front of him to begin the playoffs. Game 4 against the Oilers should’ve been 3–3 or 4–4 based on the run of play, but the Avs had the scoring chops to win 6–5.

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The Avalanche are so good at the other positions that their goaltending has barely even threatened them to date. From the first few minutes after puck drop in the first game against the Oilers, Colorado was always a few steps ahead. They’d previously obliterated the Predators and put down a feisty challenge from the St. Louis Blues in six games. The Cup Final could be a different animal, because whomever they play will have one of the best goalies in the world. Either the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin or the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy will be a significant obstacle, especially if Colorado’s netminding situation doesn’t resolve well.

There is a comforting flip side, though. Whichever Eastern Conference goaltender Colorado faces has never seen a barrage quite like what the Avalanche are about to give him.

Correction, June 7, 2022: This article originally misstated that the 2008 Red Wings and 2009 Penguins were the only teams this century, other than this year’s Avalanche, near the top of the record leaderboard for number of goals-against in in a four game series.

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