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Defending Stanley Cup champion Avs peaking at the right time

Avalanche Predators Hockey
Posted at 11:21 AM, Apr 15, 2023

The Colorado Avalanche are peaking at the right time, giving the defending Stanley Cup champions a shot to repeat.

“Once you taste it once, it’s something you want again,” Avs defenseman Bowen Byram said.

It certainly won't be easy to make it through the talented and tough teams in the Western Conference playoffs to reach the Stanley Cup Final, where it's possible the record-breaking Boston Bruins will be waiting.

Colorado closed the regular season with a 4-3 win at Nashville on Friday night, when Nathan MacKinnon scored his third goal of the game with 1:42 remaining. The Avs clinched the Central Division title for a third straight year and set up a first-round matchup with the Seattle Kraken.

The Avs went 31-7-4 over the last three months and finished with a franchise-record 29 wins on the road, including 11 straight since losing at Dallas on March 4.

“I think in January, we were sixth in our division," forward Mikko Rantanen said. “The way we played the second half of the year, fought back, and found a way to get home ice, that’s huge for our club."

Colorado will begin its defense Tuesday night at home against the wild-card Kraken, who won 19 more games than they did last year in their debut season.

The defending champions were not as dominant this season as last, when they won a franchise-record 56 games in the regular season before going 16-4 in the playoffs with two sweeps.

The Avs lost some scoring punch in the offseason when Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky cashed in on their value in the market and signed with Calgary and Seattle, respectively.

Injuries then led to Colorado setting a franchise record for players used in a season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog was not one of them, missing the entire season (and the upcoming postseason) with a right knee that has been surgically repaired twice.

Star power is still on Colorado's side with MacKinnon and Rantanen up front and reigning Norris Trophy winner Cale Makar on the back end. In net, the franchise made a savvy move to acquire Alexandar Georgiev from the New York Rangers for third- and fifth round picks in July just before Cup-winning goaltender Darcy Kuemper left in free agency for Washington.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon had a career-high 111 points this season, and the six-time All-Star might be in his prime. Rantanen scored a career-high 55 goals, ranking third in the league and surpassing his previous career high for points by 19 with 105.

Makar, who has been out for two weeks with a lower-body injury, was limited to 60 games due to injuries and is day to day going into the playoffs.

And Georgiev made the most of his first opportunity to be a No. 1 goalie, going 40-16-6 and giving up 2.53 goals a game in a breakout season after winning no more than 17 games in his five years with the Rangers.

“Vezina (Trophy)-worthy season,” MacKinnon said. “What a pickup by us. One of the best goalies in the league and we’re lucky to have him."

Seattle seems to be at a disadvantage in net, where Martin Jones and Philipp Grubauer split time and each allowed nearly three goals a game. The Kraken will also be without Burakovsky for the beginning of the playoffs because he needed surgery to address a lower-body injury. Burakovsky, who had 39 points in 49 games, has not played since Feb. 7.

Here's a look at the other first-round matchups:

VEGAS VS. WINNIPEG

The Western Conference's top-seeded team and Pacific Division champion Golden Knights will host the wild-card Jets in Game 1 on Tuesday night.

Vegas, which made the playoffs in its first five seasons before falling short last year, set a franchise-record with 111 points. Jack Eichel was the team's leading scorer. They're also led by first-year coach Bruce Cassidy. The Golden Knights are hopeful captain Mark Stone can return from a back injury that has kept him out of the lineup for three months.

The Jets also have a first-year coach, Rick Bowness, who will need winger Kyle Connor and goalie Connor Hellebuyck to be the best players on the ice to pull off an upset and advance.

EDMONTON VS. LOS ANGELES

The Oilers and Kings, the second- and third-place teams in the in the Pacific, will face off in the first round for the second straight year starting Monday night in Edmonton. Connor McDavid and Co. outlasted Los Angeles in Game 7 last year.

The 26-year-old superstar may not let the rematch linger long. McDavid led the league with 64 goals and 153 points, racking up 25 more points than No. 2 on the list, teammate Leon Draisaitl, and 40 more than the NHL's third-leading scorer, Boston's David Pastrnak.

McDavid, the MVP frontrunner, is motivated to do more this postseason after being swept by Colorado in the Western Conference finals last season.

Los Angeles is still led by Anze Kopitar, who had a 74-point season at the age of 35. But to keep up with the high-scoring Oilers, the Kings need some banged-up players to return.

Second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala missed the last two weeks with a lower-body injury and Gabriel Vilardi, who had 41 points in 63 games, has been out for a few weeks due to an upper-body ailment.

DALLAS VS. MINNESOTA

The Stars and Wild, after finishing second and third in the Central Division, will meet in Dallas for Game 1 on Monday night.

Under first-year coach Peter DeBoer, young winger Jason Robertson scored 40-plus goals for the second straight season and 33-year-old winger Jamie Benn turned back the clock with a 78-point season.

Minnesota, meanwhile, wants to snap a skid of six straight opening-round exits and advance for the first time since 2015. The Wild may rotate goalies between 38-year-old, three-time Cup winning goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and 24-year-old Filip Gustavsson.

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AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver and AP freelance reporter Jim Diamond in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.

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AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports


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