Colorado Avalanche vs. St. Louis Blues: Who has the edge, five things to watch and predictions

What to watch in the Colorado Avalanche’s second-round NHL Western Conference playoff series against the St. Louis Blues:

Who has the edge?

Forwards

St. Louis has nine forwards who produced 20 goals in the regular season — four more than the Avs. Led by Russians Vladimir Tarasenko (34 goals) and Pavel Buchnevich (30), and Canadians Jordan Kyrou and David Perron (both with 27), the Blues are rich up front. And their best player is likely first-line center Ryan O’Reilly, who has five goals and eight points in six playoff games. Tarasenko and Perron also had five goals in eliminating Minnesota in six games — the 11th time in league history three teammates each scored five times in a series. League-wide, it’s hard to match St. Louis’ depth. But the Avs have what it takes. They lead all playoff teams in scoring with 5.25 goals per game (St. Louis is second at 3.67) and the second line of center Nazem Kadri and wingers Gabe Landeskog and Artturi Lehkonen is just as dangerous as the top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Valeri Nichushkin and Mikko Rantanen. The Blues have been going with just 11 forwards and an extra defenseman, so the Avs could have an advantage with the bottom-six. Edge: Even

Defensemen

The Blues are banged up on the blueline and Colorado is as deep and talented as it has ever been. Defensemen Marco Scandella and Torey Krug missed Game 6 against the Wild with injuries and are both day-to-day. Rookie Scott Perunovich is the seventh defenseman and has stepped in for Krug on the No. 1 power play. That chess game simply doesn’t compare to the Avs, who boast the gifted Cale Makar-Devon Toews pairing and a stack of excellent options behind them. Makar had 10 points in the Nashville series — the most by an NHL defenseman since Paul Coffey in 1989 through the first four games of a postseason. If the Blues can’t control Makar from doing what he did against the Predators, they will have a big problem limiting Colorado’s scoring. Makar is a highly consistent game-changer, and in a seven-game series, his value is heightened. Edge: Avalanche

Goaltending

Both teams have used two goalies almost evenly in their first-round series, but Colorado’s usage of backup Pavel Francouz was not planned. He stepped in for the injured Darcy Kuemper late in the first period of Game 3 and Kuemper also could play in Game 4 because of swelling around his right eye. Francouz played well enough for the Avs to win (.902 save percentage) but Kuemper is scheduled to start in Game 1 against the Blues, who will likely go with Jordan Binnington — the backup to end the regular season and to begin the postseason. Ville Husso had a 37-save shutout in Game 1 against the Wild but struggled in the next two games, both losses, and was replaced by Binnington for Game 4. Binnington is on a roll, going 3-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average and .943 save percentage. As always, goaltending will play a huge role in the series and both teams have two experienced guys. Edge: Even

Special teams

Colorado leads all playoff teams with an extraordinary 43.8% success rate on the power play. That likely won’t continue, but if it does, the Avs will control the series. However, that goes both ways. St. Louis also has a confident power play — even with Perunovich running the top unit in place of Krug. The Blues have a 30.8% postseason power play and O’Reilly’s presence as the bumper-man in the middle is a dangerous look that also opens flank opportunities from snipers like Perron (left), Tarasenko (right) and Brayden Schenn (universal). Makar and MacKinnon are as dangerous on the PP as any right-shot tandem in the league, and if Rantanen gets going on the opposite wing, the Avs’ man-advantage success could improve from the last series. Rantanen led Colorado with 36 goals in the regular season but failed to score against the Predators. Edge: Even

Coaching

Jared Bednar and his staff have the Avs playing the right way. They produced 45, 51, 42 and 38 shots in the four victories against Nashville, and execution in all areas was sharp. But Colorado didn’t face much adversity, and that’s bound to emerge against a deeper and more confident team in the Blues. Bednar is bound to coach out of adversity better than he did a year ago in the second-round meltdown against Vegas. St. Louis coach Craig Berube led his club to the Stanley Cup in 2019 and now has Jim Montgomery on his staff. “Monty” is well-known in Colorado for his remarkable success at the University of Denver, which led to him being hired as the head coach of the Dallas Stars in 2018. Monty has a long history of pushing his teams to play their best at this time of year and Berube now has that ace up his sleeve. Edge: Even

— Mike Chambers

Five things to watch

1. Over the hump. The narrative that’s haunted Jared Bednar’s tenure as Avalanche head coach? His team’s inability to advance past the second round of the NHL playoffs. It’s where Colorado has gotten bounced in each of the past three years — in six games to Vegas (’21), in seven games to Dallas (’20) and in seven games to San Jose (’19). The Avs return the same leadership core that stumbled in each of those failed series. Stars like Nathan MacKinnon, Gabe Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen are especially motivated to finally made a deep run.

2. Familiar foe. The Blues went 49-22-11 (109 points) entering the playoffs and finished third in the Central, two spots behind the division champion Avalanche. Colorado and St. Louis met three times in the regular season with the Avs holding a 2-1 advantage. Last postseason, the Avalanche also swept the Blues in the first round. That familiarity should aid each team in scouting reports for their second-round rematch. Both rosters are especially deep with significant contributors spread throughout their lineups.

3. Kuemper’s vision. Avalanche fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when starting goalie Darcy Kuemper returned last week as a full practice participant. His right eye injury could have been much worse after Predators forward Ryan Johansen jammed his stick blade into Kuemper’s mask. But could there still be lingering issues for Kuemper in the second round? He was phenomenal before the injury with a .934 save percentage. Colorado will need Kuemper at the top of his game to fulfill its Stanley Cup ambitions.

4. Power-play momentum. One major key to Colorado’s first-round sweep? Its power-play unit led the NHL playoff field with an impressive 43.8% conversion rate. The Avs scored seven power-play goals over just four games. Taking advantage of St. Louis penalties could prove to be the difference. But the Avalanche has more work to do on its penalty kill. Its 76.9% kill rate ranked in the bottom half of all postseason teams at No. 11. Colorado has done a good job of playing clean hockey, though, with only 40 total penalty minutes in the first round.

5. Need Newhook? Colorado’s exceptional team depth led to some tough lineup decisions against the Predators with forward Alex Newhook a healthy scratch in all four games. He recorded 33 points (13 goals) in the regular season, rising to the team’s second-line center late in the year. Bednar opted to sit Newhook in the first round to better combat Nashville’s physicality. But it’s fair to wonder if Colorado is better served with Newhook in the lineup given his lengthy rest period and proven production. Bednar has more tough roster choices to make against St. Louis.

— Kyle Fredrickson

Staff predictions

Mike Chambers, Avalanche beat reporter: Nazem Kadri will play a key role in the series. If the Avs’ second-line center can play with an edge but not fly off it, Colorado will be in good shape. But the Blues hate this guy and know his history of playoff suspensions dating to his days in Toronto. They will try to provoke him. They remember Kadri’s check-to-the-head on Blues defenseman Justin Faulk a year ago and how his eight-game suspension hurt the Avs in the second round against Vegas. Here’s guessing Kadri keeps his cool and still contributes as he’s capable. Avs in 6.

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Kyle Fredrickson, sports reporter: The Avalanche proved itself to be every bit of the Stanley Cup frontrunner in a clean sweep over Nashville. Don’t expect that narrative to change in the second round against St. Louis. A fully healthy Colorado roster (especially goaltender Darcy Kuemper) should strike fear into the Blues, who won’t be able to match the Avalanche’s speed and skill. St. Louis will steal a game on its home ice. But count on another dominant performance by Jared Bednar’s crew. Avs in 5.

Mark Kiszla, columnist: And now the real mind games begin. During the opening round sweep of Nashville, the totally out-manned Predators were hard-pressed to produce a lead, much less put any serious doubt in the minds of free-wheeling Avalanche players. St. Louis, however, has the depth of scoring to give Colorado goalie Darcy Kuemper a tough night at the office. How will the Avs respond to their first real playoff adversity? We’ve waited a year to find out. Avs in 7.

Sean Keeler, columnist: If you love wild (no pun intended), see-saw lamp-lighting, this could be the series for you. Keep an eye on the power play: In their four wins over Minnesota in the first round, the Blues held the Wild to just two goals on 16 attempts with at least one extra man on ice. It’ll be scrappy, but Jared Bednar (crosses fingers) and a healthy (crosses fingers on both hands) Darcy Kuemper break the franchise second-round curse, once and for all. Eventually. Avs in 6.

Lori Punko, deputy sports editor: The Avalanche is the stronger, deeper team, especially on the blue line with the combination of Cale Makar and Devon Toews. But this series is going to come down to netminders. Will Darcy Kuemper come back from his injury strong and confident? For the Blues, young Finnish goaltender Ville Husso appeared to be the team’s No. 1 going into the playoffs and winning Game 1. Husso dropped Games 2 and 3 and was replaced by Stanley Cup winner Jordan Binnington. Will St. Louis stick with Binnington? Avs in 6

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