The Colorado Avalanche have one of the NHL’s most dynamic offenses, led by Hart Trophy finalist Nathan MacKinnon.
The Arizona Coyotes play it much closer to the vest, relying on superb goaltending and counterattacking when they have the opportunity.
Whichever team can consistently establish its style of play in the best-of-seven series starting Wednesday will move on, the other will get popped out of the Edmonton bubble.
“They’re highly skilled, hard on the puck, they’re top 10 in most categories, they’ve got arguably the best player in the league, just a well-rounded team,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. “They’re built to win right now. It’s a big challenge for our hockey club. We’re excited about playing them, though.”
The Avalanche were second in the Western Conference with 94 points when the season was halted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Colorado won two of its three games in the round-robin portion of the Stanley Cup qualifiers, losing 4-3 in overtime to Vegas in the finale to just miss the No. 1 seed in the West.
The Avalanche were fourth in the NHL with 3.37 goals per game during the regular season and have two of the league’s better players in MacKinnon and rookie defenseman Cale Makar.
MacKinnon is one of three Hart Trophy finalists after finishing with 35 goals and 58 assists. Makar is a Calder Trophy finalist after notching 12 goals with 38 assists.
“I don’t think we have ever seen a stronger lineup than this in (my) tenure here, so this is very exciting and I think we are just scratching the surface on what we can do,” Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said.
The Coyotes are back in the postseason for the first time since reaching the 2012 Western Conference finals. Arizona was 11th in the West when the season was halted, but earned a spot in the expanded postseason in Edmonton.
The Coyotes took advantage, knocking off Nashville in four games behind the sterling play of goalie Darcy Kuemper and strong performances by their top players.
“Arizona has an identity, they play to it every night,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “They’re very consistent in what they do. They’re going to make it difficult on our guys, so we’re going to have to be ready to deal with their checking. They’re a real good hockey team, they’ve proven it already here in the bubble.”
Kuemper was limited to 29 games during the regular season due to injury, but shined in the Nashville series, stopping a whopping 152 shots with a .933 save percentage. Backup Antti Raanta appears to be healthy after being injured during warmups prior to Game 2 against the Predators.
Colorado also has a solid 1-2 goalie punch.
Philipp Grubauer has been good in the bubble, stopping 53 shots in two round-robin games. Pavel Francouz finished sixth in the regular season with a 2.41 goals-against average and stopped 27 shots in a shutout against Dallas inside the playoff bubble.
HALL AND KESSEL
The Coyotes made two big moves to improve their scoring in the 2019-20 season, adding Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall.
Kessel, acquired in a preseason trade with Pittsburgh, labored with injuries during the regular season and Hall was up and down after being traded from New Jersey prior to the trade deadline.
Kessel and Hall played like Arizona expected during the Nashville series, each scoring a goal with three assists. Keeping those two in check will be a top priority for Colorado.
Colorado’s top line of MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Landeskog is one of the most productive in the NHL, combining for 75 goals and 103 assists during the regular season.
The Avalanche have plenty of depth behind them with nine players finishing with at least 30 regular-season points and 11 players notching a point in the three round-robin games.
Andre Burakovsky gave Colorado some added scoring punch in his first season with the Avalanche, chipping in 20 goals and 25 assists.