Moments after a devastating overtime loss Wednesday, Nathan MacKinnon described the prospect of going to St. Louis for Game 6 as “a huge challenge” but said he and his teammates are excited for it. The Avalanche still have two chances to get the one win needed to send them to the Western Conference finals, the first of which comes Friday.
None of that makes the team’s collapse in Game 5 more understandable, but MacKinnon believes the Avalanche can learn from it. And they’ll need to or the loss could haunt them for a long time.
“This should make our team a little harder, a little more grittier in these situations,” MacKinnon said.
There were plenty of concerning signs for the Avalanche in Game 5, which saw them blow a 3-0 second period lead and a 4-3 lead with less than a minute left in regulation. But there were also reasons to believe Colorado can still beat the Blues.
Let’s go over five of each.
Reason for concern: Darcy Kuemper’s play
The Avalanche gave up a lot to acquire Kuemper, sending a first-round pick and Conor Timmins to Arizona this summer in exchange for the netminder. And though Kuemper was a bright spot for the Avalanche in the regular season, he had his worst game of the playoffs against St. Louis in Game 5, at least by Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Saved Above Expected metric. He allowed 1.82 more goals than expected, per the site, and coughed up costly rebounds. In a game decided in overtime, that will come back to bite you.
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar acknowledged Kuemper’s tough night, but he said he was far from the only Avalanche player to perform poorly.
“You can group him in with our team,” the coach said. “We weren’t good enough, in the third period especially.”
Kuemper has a negative GSAx in four of five games this series. That’s a problematic trend and one he’ll need to fix if Colorado is going to be a championship team. But it’s not shaking Bednar’s belief that he’s the team’s best chance to win, which makes sense considering his success in the bulk of the season. Asked if he’d consider going with backup Pavel Francouz in Game 6, Bednar responded simply.
Reason for optimism: Playoff Nathan MacKinnon
MacKinnon did just about everything in his power for Colorado to come away with a win Wednesday. He had four points, a hat trick and arguably the best goal of the entire postseason. The Blues had limited the Colorado star to three assists in the opening four games of the series, but Game 5 saw him find a groove. St. Louis had no answer. And though MacKinnon was disappointed after Wednesday’s loss, he projected confidence.
“We’ve got to keep our game going and stay aggressive,” he said. “That’s what we’ll do on Friday.”
MacKinnon is up to 82 career playoff points in 59 games. He crossed the 80-point barrier in Game 5, tying Sidney Crosby for the fourth-fewest games needed to reach the mark. Only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Jari Kurri reached 80 points faster.
Nathan MacKinnon just did that. Go-ahead goal to complete the hat trick🥵 pic.twitter.com/tSP4VvmeYg
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) May 26, 2022
Reason for concern: Robert Thomas getting going
The 22-year-old Thomas had a strong season for St. Louis, logging 77 points in 72 games. But he hadn’t found his game early these playoffs, failing to score in the Blues’ first 10 games and notching only three assists.
That all changed in the third period of Game 5. Thomas scored twice, including the equalizer with 56 seconds left. Vladimir Tarasenko scored, too. The Avalanche had previously shut both players down, but if they are going for the Blues, St. Louis is much tougher to beat.
Reason for optimism: Improved penalty killing (at least at four-on-five)
Colorado went 3-for-3 on the penalty kill Wednesday, a big improvement from Game 4, which saw the Blues score two power-play goals in the second period. Bednar said the team made adjustments at intermission that night, and those tweaks appear to have worked.
“The PK knew we had to be better,” said Darren Helm, who played nearly four short-handed minutes Wednesday. “Watched a little bit more video and prepared a little differently. Guys are giving their all, sacrificing their bodies, blocking shots. That’s what we need moving forward.”
That said, Colorado struggled when the Blues pulled their goalie, failing to get the puck out of the defensive zone at five-on-six, which led to Thomas scoring the tying goal.
Reason for concern: Inability to put games away
Colorado had a three-goal lead in Game 4 but allowed the Blues to cut it to one heading into the third period. Even in Game 1, which the Avalanche won in overtime, Colorado couldn’t finish a plethora of scoring chances and beat the Blues in regulation.
Then there was Wednesday’s collapse. Whether it’s straying from their game or the Blues making pushes, Colorado’s inability to put away games is the reason the series is still going.
Reason for optimism: Road success these playoffs
The Avalanche have been a good road team these playoffs, winning all four of their contests outside Ball Arena. Coaches having last line change at home also could matter less than in other series, considering Bednar and Blues coach Craig Berube have, for the most part, been playing their top lines against each other.
“It’s in the past, but obviously we’ve had some success there,” MacKinnon said about playing in St. Louis. “We definitely need a better effort for a full 60.”
Reason for concern: Samuel Girard’s absence
Girard broke his sternum after taking an Ivan Barbashev hit in Game 3. He’s out for the playoffs, and it has a trickle-down effect on the whole lineup. Jack Johnson now has to take some of the 20 minutes per game Girard was playing, and though he had a good Avalanche postseason debut in Game 4, he had a minus-1 rating in Game 5 and the Avalanche generated only 38.16 percent of the expected goal share with him on the ice at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick. He also played five fewer minutes than the next closest defenseman, which doesn’t project trust from Bednar.
Bowen Byram, meanwhile, has looked good with more responsibility. The Avalanche generated nearly 80 percent of the expected goals while he was on the ice.
Reason for optimism: Good after losses
Colorado makes a point of not losing two games in a row. For the most part this season, the team has been successful in avoiding it.
After a three-game early-season losing streak in October, Colorado lost more than one game in a row only five times this season. Two of those occasions came in the final month, when the Avalanche were resting players in preparation for the postseason. Aside from Girard, Colorado is dressing a healthy roster, and a team with that talent level shouldn’t lose three times in a row.
Reason for concern: Experience
The Blues know how to win. A good chunk of their roster won the Stanley Cup in 2019, but even some of their other additions have a championship pedigree. Deadline acquisition Nick Leddy won the Cup with Chicago, and so did Brandon Saad. So when their backs were against the wall in Game 5, they didn’t flinch. That’s going to make them tough to eliminate.
Reason for optimism: Colorado has been the better team
This statement applies to both the regular season and playoffs. The Avalanche finished with 10 more regular-season points in the standings, and they’ve outplayed St. Louis the bulk of this series. The Avalanche leads 3-2, after all.
Check out these five-on-five numbers, all via Natural Stat Trick:
- Colorado has 57.74 percent of the expected goal share
- Colorado has had 61.84 percent of scoring chances
- Colorado has had 59.74 percent of high-danger scoring chances
Essentially, if the Avalanche play the way they have the first five games, they will be able to close out St. Louis. If their game slips, that’s where things could get dicey, as shown in the Game 5 collapse.
(Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)