In a sport as chaotic as hockey, it can be hard for favorites to deliver in the playoffs. There’s a reason that we frequently see great teams from the regular season flame out early in the postseason, while the whole tournament often feels like little more than a battle of streaky goaltending. This year was shaping up to be even more daunting than usual for the top teams, given the wealth of dangerous contenders throughout the season and the historically competitive way the playoffs started.
Up against all that, though, the Colorado Avalanche have been exactly as good as advertised in the 2022 playoffs — if not far better. Colorado put a dramatic finishing touch on its sweep of the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference final, coming back Monday night from a 4-2 third-period deficit (and surviving a late, game-tying rally by Edmonton) to win on Artturi Lehkonen’s goal early in overtime.1 Just like it has done all season, Colorado shrugged off the potential for chaos, took care of its business and climbed onward. Now there’s only one peak left to summit for a team that looks as impressive as any we’ve seen in recent memory.
The Avalanche have spent almost the entire 2021-22 season on an upward trajectory. Going into the year, we rated them as Stanley Cup co-favorites,2 and after a very brief up-and-down stretch (they were 4-6 through 10 games), they started winning and basically never stopped.3 Here’s a plot of Colorado’s ever-escalating Elo rating over the course of the season:
The team has picked up a particularly quick pace in the playoffs. After sweeping Edmonton, Colorado is now 12-2 in the postseason (good for an .857 winning percentage) with a +1.8 goals-per-game differential. Among Stanley Cup Finalists since the 1979 NHL-WHA merger, the Avalanche rank 10th in per-game scoring differential leading up to the championship round and are tied for the second-best winning percentage, trailing only the 1983 Oilers (who went 11-1 over the first three rounds of the playoffs).4 And it hasn’t been from facing weak competition: Among teams with an .857 playoff winning percentage or better on the path to the final, only two (the 2003 Mighty Ducks and 2012 Kings) faced a tougher journey according to the average pre-series Elo rating of each opponent the team dispatched. Add it up, and the 2022 Avalanche have been one of the modern NHL’s most dominant Stanley Cup Finalists over the first three rounds of the playoffs:
For fans of 1990s hockey such as yours truly, the Avalanche’s return to dominance brings back memories of their quasi-dynasty from more than two decades earlier. I say “quasi” because … were they a real dynasty? On the one hand, Colorado’s record — both in the regular season and playoffs — during its 1996-2001 peak stands up well against anyone. But they never won back-to-back Cups or even two in a three-year span, a standard we’ve used to define a dynasty before. The best the Avs did was winning twice in a six-season span.
Either way, back then Colorado won those two Cups with a team anchored by future Hall of Famers Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy and Peter Forsberg, to go with a bunch of Hall of Pretty Damn Good types such as Sandis Ozolinsh, Adam Deadmarsh, Valeri Kamensky, Milan Hejduk, Claude Lemieux and Adam Foote.5 That roster was also built with comparatively large payrolls during the era before the NHL introduced its salary cap, so it was difficult to imagine that the next dominant Avalanche team could possibly be as — or even more — talented. And that’s without even considering the sometimes-dire state of the team after the original quasi-dynasty dissolved, requiring a radical evolution from one of the worst teams in hockey to one of the very best.
But after that transformation, this year’s squad might actually surpass its predecessor as the greatest version of the franchise. In terms of top-tier talent, it’s not ridiculous to suggest that Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar and Mikko Rantanen could stack up next to the greats of Avalanche history. (Particularly given how much production Colorado’s stars have been delivering during the playoffs so far.) Nor is it outlandish to say their supporting cast is as deep as any that previously helped carry Colorado to the brink of a title. And in terms of Elo, the Avs’ current rating of 1628 is the highest in the history of the franchise, well clear of the top marks ever achieved by either of Colorado’s previous two Cup winners.
|Year||Preseason||Mid-reg season||End of Reg Season||Pre-Finals||End of Playoffs|
Of course, none of this will count for much unless Colorado completes the final step of its ascent and reaches the NHL mountaintop again after a 21-year absence. We don’t know who the Avalanche will face in the Stanley Cup Final yet, though our forecast model has already installed them as fairly heavy 65 percent favorites against either the New York Rangers or Tampa Bay Lightning. But whichever opponent prevails in the Eastern Conference will have the unenviable task of trying to prevent a loaded Colorado team from reaching the destination it has been climbing toward with purpose all season long.
Check out our latest NHL predictions.