The Colorado Avalanche split the first two games in Las Vegas across Sunday and Tuesday.
We will see two more between these teams, first the outdoor game at Lake Tahoe on Saturday, followed by the final meeting of four next Monday in Colorado.
This is the first time that these two have met this season. Ask the vast majority of people and they will tell you the Avs and Golden Knights are the two best teams in the west. Those who do not will tell you that combined with St. Louis, they make the top three, however you want to order them.
On the face of it, neither team has done anything to show dominance so far. They have split the two games—the Avalanche were shut out in the first of those—no one has laid down a marker.
That is not what I believe.
The way in which these games have unfolded, with COVID-19 and injury issues in Colorado, combined with the fact they were so rusty in the first game after their enforced COVID-19 break means the Avalanche have won big, and here is why.
Avalanche match Vegas in five out of six periods without star names
If you take every single period individually from those two games, the final period of the second game is the only time where the Avs really struggled to get a grip. Strangely enough, they scored late in that period to win a game, but that is all about clutch players surfacing at key moments.
As for the other five periods, those were even—neither team established a definitive clear gap between them and their opponents, with every period swinging at some point. The key here is that we saw Colorado do this without Sam Girard, Erik Johnson and Cale Makar on the blue line.
That is their future Norris-winning stud, most experienced blue liner and a rock-solid top-four guy who is only not receiving as much praise as he should because the team is too loaded.
We don't talk about him enough because the Avs have so many fun players but Sam Girard is one of my favourites to watch. Just love seeing him fly around, put people in the spin cycle, and create for others pic.twitter.com/gwJvzE0lKt
— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) January 29, 2021
Top-line winger and key power play component Gabe Landeskog missed the two games, as did Tyson Jost, arguably the best bottom-six forward so far this season. Throw in Matt Calvert, missing for a few weeks now, and even Kiefer Sherwood, a surprise positive, and you see how short this team has been.
Return to a full-strength roster
Given the season so far, do not be surprised to see this team ever field a full roster, but let’s work on the assumption they can at some point.
Move one, likely to happen before the outdoor game is Makar in and Dennis Gilbert out.
This instantly makes the Avalanche better at both ends of the ice. Then add Landeskog to kickstart the power play once more, go back on the top line and slot Jost back onto the fourth line. Again, this makes the team instantly better at both ends of the ice.
We will also see more balance. Logan O’Connor can slot back into his “crash, bang, wallop” fourth-line role, with Jost and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, meaning the Avs can push forward with that line rather than simply aiming to survive.
Further in time, we will see the likes of Calvert and Johnson returning, adding veteran presence and calm, while crucially upgrading the quality of the roster, too.
If you are a member of the Vegas Golden Knights’ franchise and see how those two games have just been played out and then look at the above improvements the Avs can make, you would be lying if you said it did not worry you.
The play of Philipp Grubauer
Coming into the new season, Philipp Grubauer splits fans into three camps.
- Those who thought he was not the man to lead this team
- Those who thought he was good enough but had health problems
- Those who thought he was good enough and the Avs just needed to sit tight
We certainly have more people in the final camp now after what has been a huge start to the season by the German netminder. He has played really well in every single game, but in Vegas, he took that to a whole new level.
Philipp Grubauer had another strong game tonight, stopping 27 of Vegas' 29 shots. His .936 save percentage is third in the NHL among goalies who have played 5+ games.
"He’s the backbone, and he’s essentially driving the bus for us," Nazem Kadri said.
— Peter Baugh (@Peter_Baugh) February 17, 2021
Marc-Andre Fleury was exceptional at the other end of the ice, and Grubauer needed to be at the very top of his game to keep the Avs in it. Both netminders knew that just one mistake in those two games could have been the difference between victory and defeat, and the Colorado Avalanche were not let down at all by their man in the cage.
With question marks over Grubauer, many made this team Stanley Cup favorites. If he can somehow play like this for a full season—and stay healthy—those predictions become a lot firmer.
The coming of age of Bowen Byram
Not every fan was onboard the Byram hype train at the start of the season, and would not have minded him developing for another year elsewhere. Those who were not sure probably comforted themselves knowing that the Avs intended to shelter Byram as much as they could on the bottom pairing, allowing him to grow into games.
Injuries and COVID-19 threw that out of the window in Vegas, and Byram thrived on it. Yes, he will continue to make the odd rookie mistake. We all have to expect that and live with the consequences.
He played 23:07 in game one, smashing his previous high by almost two minutes. That itself is impressive enough, but game two demanded more from the 19-year-old. He played 25:05 on Tuesday, again, an almost two-minute jump from his previous best, and for the first time this season, taking over 30 shifts in a game.
Byram is no longer being sheltered by the Avalanche, and quite frankly, he does not need to be.
Note the veteran play to get the puck toward players crashing the net for the game winner below.
— Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche) February 17, 2021
Time to be positive
If you look at everything in reverse and see the Avalanche splitting games with an under-strength Vegas team, who have multiple key pieces coming back in, you would be a little worried.
But, we are on the right side of this, so it is time to be positive. At full strength, the likelihood is that the Avs win both of those games in Vegas, rather than splitting them. Going back to the top paragraph, this is a team who many believe to be one of the best two teams in the west, if not, in the top three.
With good health, the Colorado Avalanche are superior, and after splitting two games on the road in Vegas with so many pieces missing, they have started to prove that.