San Jose or Vegas: Analyzing the two possible opponents for the Avs

Apr 6, 2019; San Jose, CA, USA; Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov (1) makes a save against San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton (19) during the first period at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The Avalanche are heading to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons. Their opponent is yet to be determined, as the other matchup in the pacific division between No. 2 San Jose Sharks and No. 3 Vegas Golden Knights will be decided on Tuesday in a game seven at the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif.

Despite being a heavy underdog against the No. 1 Calgary Flames, Colorado strung together four straight wins, dominating the Flames in five games and shutting down their top players in the process, to be the first team from the western conference to move on to the quarter-finals. It will be more of the same in the second round, as both the Sharks and the Golden Knights are expected be favorited over the eighth-seeded Avs.

The Avs were a combined 2-4 over the two teams, going 2-1 against Vegas and 0-3 against San Jose. Regular season performances don’t necessarily guarantee playoff success, as was proven in the first round, where Colorado ousted a team that they did not beat before the playoffs.

Colorado’s first round success was absolutely a pleasant surprise. But most importantly, the way in which they defeated Calgary has instilled a belief among the players and fans that perhaps this could be a magical run to the Stanley Cup Final.

With that being said, lets analyze the two potential matchups:

San Jose Sharks
Regular season head-to-head: 0-3
Last playoff matchup: 2010 (4-2 loss in the first round)

Colorado’s 0-3 record against the Sharks this year was perhaps skewed. The final matchup came on the final day of the regular season after both teams had stamped their ticket to the Stanley Cup playoffs. The first two games between the two came during a stretch where Colorado had won three of 20 games. Regardless, the slate is wiped clean in the playoffs, and the Avalanche will look to upset the second best team in the conference if the Sharks are in fact their opponent.

Why San Jos is a bad matchup:
The name of the game is depth. No, the Avalanche are no longer the one line team they were in the early part of the season. But the Avs’ depth will struggle to match up against a team that has Joe Thornton centering its third line. San Jose finished the regular season with nine skaters eclipsing 50 points. All-Star defenseman Erik Karlsson just missed the mark, recording 45 points in only 53 games.

They also had four 30-goal scorers, and two more in the 20s. Their top three lines consists of some of the most dynamic players in the conference. Tomas Hertl destroyed his previous career numbers, scoring 35 goals and adding 39 assists for 74 points. Timo Meier also came into his own with 30 goals and 36 assists in just his second full season. The veterans continue to produce as well. Captain Joe Pavelski led the charge with 38 goals, while long time Shark Logan Couture reached 70 points for the first time in his career.

San Jose’s defense does not shy away from the offense either. Norris Trophy nominee Brent Burns led the way with 83 points, while Karlsson is one of the most potent blueliners in the NHL. Karlsson currently leads the playoffs with seven assists.

Why San Jose is a good matchup:
The Sharks have been a contender for the Stanley Cup since acquiring Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators in September. While they’ve done an exceptional job of shutting down the Avs for a majority of the last few years, San Jose finds themselves in uncharted territory. Starting goaltender and proven playoff commodity Martin Jones has been inconsistent since the season began. Jones finished the regular season with a .896 save percentage and a 2.94 goals against average.

In the playoffs, the netminder continued to struggle, posting a .838 save percentage and a 5.33 goals against average in the first four games of the series and was pulled twice in the process. He has however improved since, going 2-0 to force a game seven, while stopping 88 of 91 shots. On Monday, he broke a Sharks franchise record with 58 saves in a 2-1 double-overtime victory.

The Avs’ game plan should be to pepper Jones just as they did with Flames goalie Mike Smith in the opening round. If the goalie continues to be inconsistent and Avs starter Philipp Grubauer remains exceptional at the other end, Colorado can escape the second round with another upset, this time against San Jose.

Vegas Golden Knights
Record in the regular season: 2-1
Last playoff matchup: N/A

After struggling against Vegas a season ago, the Avs played the second-year expansion team a lot better this year. In the loss, Colorado fell 2-1, surrendering the game-winning goal late in the third period. But they followed that up with two straight victories over the Golden Knights late in the season, which included a 3-0 shutout and a 4-3 regulation win in the midst of the playoff race.

Why Vegas is a bad matchup:
If the Golden Knights win game seven, they’ll have remained perfect in the playoffs against the western conference, winning their first four series heading into a matchup with the Avs. What makes Vegas a strong team this season is its top two lines and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Last year’s top line of Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson has suddenly been demoted to the second unit. Three new acquisitions since their Stanley Cup run a season ago make up their top line. Former Avalanche center Paul Stastny signed a three-year deal with Vegas in July and was later joined by scorer Max Pacioretty in a deal with the Montreal Canadiens. The pair played together for a majority of the season before GM George McPhee added Mark Stone at the deadline from the Ottawa Senators. The trio is currently the highest-scoring line in the playoffs and will most likely matchup against star centerman Nathan MacKinnon and his linemates if the two teams were to meet.

If the two top lines offset each other, Colorado will be tasked with having either Carl Soderberg or J.T. Compher shutdown the second line.

Fleury has been one of the best goalies in the NHL since joining Vegas at the expansion draft and reviving his career. The goaltender is a career 11-3-2 against the Avs and 2-0-2 over the past three seasons.

Why Vegas is a good matchup:
On paper, the Avs have the better blueline. While San Jose has a three-headed monster in Burns, Karlsson and shutdown defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic manning its blueline, the Golden Knights have a far different unit on its back end. The Golden Knights’ defense, similar to the Avalanche, does an exceptional job of getting the puck out of its own zone and up the ice as quickly and efficiently as possible. But after seeing MacKinnon and company dismantle Calgary’s defense, it’s okay to assume they can do the same to Vegas.

Colorado’s success against Vegas rests on the hands of MacKinnon and his wingers outdueling the Stastny line. If MacKinnon and All-Stars Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog can dominate in the Vegas zone, while helping the Avs defense shut down the top unit on the Golden Knights, the Avs can squeak through Vegas and head to the conference final for the first time since 2002.