The Avalanche are back in the playoffs for the second year in a row. Just as they did a year ago, the Avs enter the postseason as the eighth seed in the west, holding the second wildcard spot and taking on the best team in the conference. Colorado is the first team in NHL history to enter the playoffs as the lowest seed in its conference in consecutive seasons.
This year’s opening round opponent is a first for the Avs, as the Calgary Flames, who won 50 games, have never played the Avalanche in the playoffs.
As the Avalanche get set for their playoff opener Thursday, here is your guide to the first round series between two of the top ten scoring teams in the league.
1. The Avalanche went winless in the regular season against the Flames.
Despite holding a lead at some point in each of the three contests, the Avalanche came away with zero wins against Calgary, losing once in overtime and twice in regulation. In the opening matchup between the two, Calgary stormed back from a 4-1 deficit in the third period to defeat Colorado in overtime.
2. Calgary’s offense boasts five players with over 70 points.
Led by Johnny Gaudreau and his career-high 99 points, the Flames have four forwards and one defenseman that topped the 70-point plateau this season. Gaudreau tied Avalanche superstar Nathan MacKinnon for the western conference leader in points for players participating in the playoffs.
Forward Sean Monahan centered the top line and finished with 34 goals and 82 points, while newcomer Elias Lindholm enjoyed a career year, scoring 27 goals and 78 points playing on his wing. 21-year-old Matthew Tkachuk added 34 goals and 78 points in his third NHL season. Leading the blueline, 34-year-old Mark Giordano, one of the favorites for the Norris Trophy, topped his career marks in assists (57) and points (74) in his 13th season.
3. Calgary’s starting goalie is a question mark heading into the postseason.
While the Avalanche’s scheduled starter Philipp Grubauer is a no-brainer considering his late season play, the Flames’ goalie situation is anything but stable heading into the playoffs.
Veteran Mike Smith started 40 games in the regular season, going 23-16-2 with a 2.73 goals against average and a low .898 save percentage. The other goalie, David Rittich, led the Flames with 42 starts, going 27-9-5 and sporting a 2.61 goals against average and a .911 save percentage.
Smith started six of the last 10 games, going 4-2 with a .911 save percentage. Rittich was 2-2 in his four starts with a .920 save percentage.
The Flames are starting Mike Smith on Thursday.
4. Mikko Rantanen returns to the Avalanche lineup.
In the midst of the Avs’ push to the playoffs, they lost star winger Mikko Rantanen to injury. Rantanen missed the last eight games of the season (5-1-2) after posting career numbers in goals (31), assists (56) and points (87) through 74 games.
Rantanen skated on a line with Carl Soderberg and Colin Wilson at practice on Wednesday, his first full contact practice since his injury three weeks ago.
5. Grubauer earned the right to start in the playoffs.
Coming off a Stanley Cup victory with the Washington Capitals, the only team he’s ever called home, Grubauer’s career with the Avalanche was off to a rocky start. He struggled to string together consistent solid performances, sometimes sitting on the bench behind long time Avalanche starter Semyon Varlamov for weeks at a time.
After Varlamov surrendered four goals to the Anaheim Ducks in a disappointing 5-3 loss on March 15th, coach Jared Bednar turned to Grubauer the following game and the goaltender delivered a shutout. Grubauer made 22 saves and started the following seven games, before eventually helping Colorado book its playoff tickets in the waning seconds of regulation against the Winnipeg Jets.
Since the shutout against the Devils, Grubauer went 7-0-2 and was a league best in save percentage (.963) and goals against average (1.63).
Jared Bednar confirmed after Thursday’s morning skate that Grubauer will start game one for the Avalanche.
6. Home ice will be a factor in this series.
As the higher seed of the two, Calgary will have the home-ice advantage in the series. The Flames will host games one and two, and (if necessary) games five and seven.
Calgary led the western conference in the regular season with 26 home wins, good for third in the league behind the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins.
The Avs on the other hand posted just 21 wins at home, seven less than a season ago when they tied a franchise record with 28. However, Colorado enters the playoffs as the hottest team at home during the final stretch of the season. The Avalanche are 6-0-0 at the Pepsi Center dating back to the shutout against New Jersey on March 17th.
The Avalanche and Flames will be the final series in the NHL to get started. The two teams will face off at 8:00 pm MST tonight at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta.