In a series that feels like the Vegas Golden Knights are leading 2-2, that series-opening 7-1 whitewash by the Colorado Avalanche already seems like a lifetime ago.
Vegas has taken this series away from an Avalanche team that is fighting not to drop out of the playoffs in Round 2 for the third consecutive season. So it’s time to make some changes, and it looks very much like Alex Newhook and Logan O’Connor will be inserted into the Avalanche lineup, with Carl Soderberg and Kiefer Sherwood coming out.
“You look at the season-long series,” said Avs head coach Jared Bednar, “and we had some favourable numbers with some lines that we liked. It hasn’t worked out that way here in the playoffs.
“Now, we’ve got some numbers on what’s happening right now, and some of them aren’t favourable for our group. We’ll try to take advantage of some positive numbers on our side. We’ll be moving some things around.”
It’s playoff time, and there is always that fine line between sticking with all the things that made you a successful team, yet not being too stubborn to adapt when you find yourself limping into what has become a West Division Final best-of-three.
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On the other side, Vegas head coach Pete DeBoer knows that his team’s success in winning Games 3 and 4 — and dominating for eight consecutive periods in this series — will force his opponent to change.
So the dance that DeBoer will dance is about sticking with what has worked thus far, but being ready to react if Bednar’s game-planning turns things in the Avs’ favour.
“The scenario where you’re trying to be two moves ahead of what the other team is doing … is over coaching,” said DeBoer, launching into an anecdote from a book he is reading by Bill Cowher, the 15-year head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“If they ran a running play and got 10 yards, (Cowher) never understood why his offensive co-ordinator wouldn’t keep running that play until they stopped it. It drove him nuts if the guy only ran it two more times in the game. Run it ‘til they stop it.
“That’s our philosophy.”
Vegas has gained its advantage via its superior depth. The Golden Knights are taking the game from the middle of the ice, where the Nathan MacKinnon line is so dangerous, to the boards, where the sledding gets heavier. And while Vegas is getting production from both of its top two lines, when the Avs’ No. 1 unit has failed to produce they have not been bailed out from lines two through four.
And it’s starting to show, with the shots on goal on this series standing at 144-100 in Vegas’ favour.
There haven’t been a bunch of momentum swings in this series. Really, Colorado had the momentum from the opening puck drop in Game 1 until the first intermission of Game 2, and the Golden Knights have had it ever since.
Now, the Avs are back home in an arena where they won 16 of their final 17 regular season games, and have won all four playoff games this spring. If they can’t stem the tide here — tonight — then it can not be stemmed.
“One line after another,” said centre Tyson Jost. “When one line creates momentum the next line has to do the same thing. Create that snowball effect.”
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DeBoer knows the magnitude of the Game 5 task for his club.
“The bottom line is, regardless to what’s happened the last two games — we’ve won them both — it’s hard to beat anybody three games in a row, let alone the Colorado Avalanche,” he said. “We know the task in front of us, we know their home record. But we have confidence in our game, and that it will translate to the road. And that’s our plan.”
It is at times like these where we will learn much about a team like the Avalanche.
They’ve got a candidate for the best line in the National Hockey League in MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog, with a Norris Trophy favourite (Cale Makar) on the blue line and a Vezina candidate (Philipp Grubauer) in goal. They bowed out of the bubble at the hands of Western Conference champion Dallas Stars last year, down to their third string goalie (Michael Hutchinson) and with copious injuries in to their lineup.
They’ve won first-round series in two years running, sweeping the St. Louis Blues in Round 1 this year.
They’re healthy — except for the suspended Nazem Kadri, who could return for a Game 7 — and ready to win.
Really, there’s not much left to do other than that.