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Colorado Avalanche: 3 Keys to Comeback to Strike Stars in Round 2 – Hockey Writers –

Following a frustrating 5-1 loss to the Dallas Stars on Monday night (April 13), the Colorado Avalanche find themselves down 3-1 in their Western Conference second round series. The loss comes on the heels of the team finding out it will be without the services of defenseman Devon Toews and winger Valeri Nichushkin, although winger Jonathan Drouin is back in the lineup.

Although Toews' absence was due to illness and he must return for the all-important Game 5, Nichushkin was placed in Phase 3 of the NHLPA and NHL Player Assistance Program. This means that you will be suspended without pay for at least six months after which you will be able to apply for reinstatement. This marks the season after the second straight season that he has been absent from the team for personal reasons, and is a major blow to the Avalanche's Stanley Cup hopes as he was tied for the nine-goal lead at the time of the announcement.

2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Round 2: Colorado Avalanche vs. Dallas Stars (The Hockey Writers)

The Avalanche seem overwhelmed by the depth and speed of the Stars and successfully developing a comeback against a team that finished one point behind the New York Rangers for the President's Trophy is unlikely, but not impossible. Four teams have come back to overcome 3-1 series deficits since the 2019 Playoffs, and the Florida Panthers accomplished the feat last season.

Let's dive into the three biggest keys to the Avalanche's revival and how Colorado can climb back into the series by executing their game plan in a potential series-deciding game on the road.

Key Number 1: Get Off to a Better Start the First Time

Easier said than done and I don't want to take away from how the Stars' forecheck has been lacking, but the Avalanche must find a way to start games with more urgency and more accurate execution.

The Stars have scored the first goal in all games of this series and except for Game 3, they have gone ahead 3-0 or 4-0. The Avalanche scored four unanswered goals to steal Game 1 in overtime, but were held back by empty-netters to lead the Stars by one goal in Games 2 and 3. Too bad the Avalanche never led in regulation. at any point in the series.

The Stars also outscored the Avalanche in three of the first four quarters of the series, compiling a plus-12 shot differential (39-27) in the first frame. The first period of Game 4 saw the biggest difference in the shot count, when Dallas counted 16 shots to Colorado's two. The Avalanche have outscored the Stars 64-34 over the last two periods in scoring, but have failed to make their dominance count outside of Game 1.

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The Avalanche have the offensive talent to mount an improbable comeback every night, and have done so all season. They scored the second-most goals in the league in the regular season and ranked second in the playoffs in third-season scoring, but that's not a proven recipe for postseason success.

The playoffs are a different beast, and the Stars' dominance has shown that slow starts can be deadly. If the Avalanche have any hope of mounting an improbable comeback, a strong opening in Game 5 is non-negotiable.

Key Number 2: Improved Special Teams Execution

Aside from Game 1, where the Avalanche used both second-period power-play opportunities to fuel their comeback, they're not alive. The power play has failed to convert in three straight games (zero in eight), two of 10 in the series, and it also allowed two back-to-back goals to swing the momentum in Dallas' favor.

Astute readers will note that the Stars have scored as many shorthanded goals in this series as the Avalanche have power play goals, a far cry from Round 1 where the Avalanche torched the Winnipeg Jets with six goals in 16 chances.

The Avalanche's power play ranks last or second among teams in the second round in shots, chances, and expected goals produced per 60 minutes. The Stars surprisingly tied up a star-studded team and limited a critical source of the Avalanche's offense.

The penalty kill didn't hold up its end of the bargain during the series. The Avalanche's PK units gave up four goals in 12 chances, including three times where the Stars scored the first goal of the game or extended an existing lead.

The punishment for murder cannot be placed on the shoulders of the most despised Alexander Georgiev. As is the case with the power play, the Avalanche allowed the highest or second highest shooting average, the most dangerous opportunities, and the expected goals in Round 2, failing to protect the area around their crease.

The penalty kill went 13 of 16 in Round 1 (76.9%) which wasn't spectacular, but doing it at that rate would have prevented the Avalanche from needing too many inspired comebacks.

Both special teams must improve in Game 5 if the Avalanche hope to stay alive in the battle for the Western Conference crowns. They have the personnel to do so, but execution is key with little room for error going forward.

Key Number 3: Avalanche Stars Must See

The key is to reduce as it follows that the stars of the team do not play if the stick does not explode and it has become the norm to start slowly. Still, the Avalanche need more than the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Cale Makar, especially with the likes of Toews and Nichushkin off the roster.

At least two of Colorado's three stars contributed to their first three goals in Game 1 before Miles Wood's overtime winner, but they have been limited to one goal (Rantanen) and two points in three games since.

The Stars have seen contributions throughout their lineup, with 10 players scoring at least one goal and four scoring at least two to four games. In comparison, the Avalanche have eight at least one (seven if you don't include Nichushkin), but only one skater at least two.

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While their depth is outstanding, the Stars' success has been fueled by two rising talents in forward Wyatt Johnston and defenseman Miro Heiskanen.

Heiskanen should be familiar even to fair-weather NHL fans by now despite never being named a Norris Trophy finalist in his six-year career. He starred in Dallas' run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final with 26 points in 27 games as a 20-year-old, and ranks behind only Makar and Victor Hedman in scoring by a defenseman since his 2019 debut. Defender of Finland. leads the series with three goals and seven points and has excelled Makar on both ends of the ice.

Johnston has enjoyed a meteoric rise in this, his second NHL season. He led the Stars in scoring in the regular season with 32 goals, and is tied for third in the 2024 Playoffs with seven goals in 11 games. The 21-year-old has scored three goals in the series, including a shorthand marker to open the scoring in Game 4 after robbing Makar while trying to get out of the defense.

Johnston finds himself in classy company, and has moved on from his more decorated colleagues. If the Stars advance, expect Heiskanen and Johnston to be the frontrunners for the Conn Smythe Trophy. If the Avalanche hope to turn the series around, they need their stars to play.

Stars coach Pete DeBoer leans heavily on defenseman Chris Tanev against the Avalanche's triumvirate at five-on-five, a tactic that has paid off big. Avalanche coach Jared Bednar won't get the last change in Game 5, but getting his best players away from Tanev is crucial to unlocking their potential.

Avalanche Looking Down Uncomfortable Offseason

The Stars clearly have all the momentum as they have won three straight by multiple goals including both games in Colorado, but the Avalanche still have a way to go to win the series despite the long odds. Focus and attention to detail are variables that have nothing to do with the quality of the opponent, and both Avalanche players and Bednar could make significant improvements in this regard.

If they fail to do so, it could be a rough season amid uncertainty surrounding the long-term future of Nichushkin and sidelined captain Gabriel Landeskog, who last played in Game 6 of the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals.

I don't mean to prematurely write a eulogy, but to have another year of Stanley Cup contention with the core of MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Makar wasted for external reasons would be very frustrating. Let's hope Game 5 sparks the start of a memorable turnaround, rather than setting the stage for a disappointing end to a once-promising campaign.

Data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and NHL.

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