I can think of no scarier sight in hockey than the one Edmonton goalie Mike Smith saw barreling toward him in the first minute of overtime during Monday night’s Oilers-Avalanche game. Colorado’s stud defenseman Cale Makar took advantage of confusion all across the Oilers in 3-on-3—Darnell Nurse lost his helmet, Connor McDavid got awkwardly tied up at the blue line in his own zone, and Evander Kane was just all turned around—to speed across the center line and take the puck in for a 2-on-1 with Nathan MacKinnon.
To Smith’s right, he saw Makar, a 23-year-old with a legit claim to being the greatest hockey player in the world today. To his left, he saw a former 40-goal scorer and regular Hart candidate. Had it been me in the mask, I probably would have dropped to my back, possum style, and prayed for sympathetic confusion. Smith, to his credit, gamely tried to square up to MacKinnon as the center received the pass between the circles. Then he watched, glove hand flailing, as the puck flew over his left shoulder and into the net for the game-ender.
This is the Colorado Avalanche right now. A 45-13-5 record that bests anyone else in the NHL. A plus-69 goal differential, with an offense scoring over 3.8 per game. A mere three regulation losses at home. And the ability to decimate goaltenders at the slightest hint of their opponents’ misfortune. They are absolute monsters, and they remain such even after the terrible news from earlier this month.
Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog, a real fave around these parts for his looks and also his toughness and his scoring ability, had some issue with his knee that head coach Jared Bednar said “was getting worse” and went into surgery for it last week. There is officially no timeline for his return, and though the Avs aren’t talking like he’s done for the season, it’s still a huge blow, partially for the intangible impact of losing your team leader but probably even more importantly because Landy was the team’s leading scorer with 30 goals until Mikko Rantanen picked up a brace to get to 31 on Monday.
The Avs have not slowed down without their captain, though, and have perhaps even gained momentum with several moves ahead of the just-passed trade deadline that seek to further cement their place as the odds-on favorite to advance out of the West. Big veteran defenseman Josh Manson, acquired last week from Anaheim for a prospect and a pick, is the prototypical blue-collar penalty killer that GMs love to get for those ugly, grind-em-out games in the postseason. On the forward lines, the Avs swapped Tyson Jost, who probably needed a change of scenery, for Minnesota’s Nico Sturm, who scores a few more goals. Then on deadline day they got Andrew Cogliano, another veteran locker room hand, in exchange for a fifth-rounder, and then for even more depth, they snagged Artturi Lehkonen, who scored the OT goal that sent the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup Final last year.
None of these moves are headliners in and of themselves, but together they form an extremely aggressive collection of transactions that proactively seeks to address any issues the Avs might encounter when they need production from beyond their superstars in a lengthy series. The scars of this team’s blown 2-0 lead against Vegas in the second round last year are still visible, but GM Joe Sakic has done everything in his power to avoid the same fate in 2022, deepening the team with steady, proven skaters. Particularly if Landeskog and a couple of injured young Ds—Bowen Byram and Samuel Girard—can make it back to the ice in time, this is a roster built like it’s a video game’s franchise mode.
And even if they don’t get reinforcements back, these guys skating for them right this moment might be more than enough. Even against Edmonton, who boasts dazzling scorers and a hot streak of late, the Avs iced a power play that was every bit as must-see as the Oilers’, and of course, when it came to the overtime action, even Edmonton struggled to compete with the trio combinations that Colorado could toss out, e.g. Kadri/Makar/MacKinnon. They’ve expertly used their draft picks from years of losing to put in place a tremendous core, and they’ve augmented those talents with useful pick-ups whose games only improve in the snowy A.
The better team doesn’t always win in the playoffs, and if they bomb out early the Avs will struggle to keep things together with a dearth of future picks. But you can only ever control the process. For now, Colorado has created the best hockey team that money, scouting, and the mortgaging of future assets can buy, and for that should be the envy of the league.