The Colorado “Avalanche” has perhaps the best franchise name in professional sports. Natural disasters like the “Hurricanes” are in the same vein and similarly unstoppable – good luck to all your bears and tigers and leaves out there – but “Avalanche” is exactly what you want your team to be. Broadly moving in one direction, all at once, stopping at nothing, burying everything and anyone who dares to stand in your way.
And boy, is that an apt name for this year’s Colorado team that gave the Tampa Bay Lightning—another great name, of course—everything they could handle, especially in precheck, in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Once they started rolling, the Bolts had trouble digging out.
One of the storylines of this series was the play of two elite defenders, Cale Makar and Victor Hedman, who are the top two D-men on planet earth, but don’t ask me to rank them. (If I had to pick one to start a team for next season, I’d grow old and gray at the decision.)
After Makar had the best performance of any defenseman in the NHL this postseason, all eyes were on him. Sportsnet’s Kevin Bieksa did a wonderful job explaining how Game 1 went for Makar, which was fascinating because it wasn’t “he played great” or “he fought” but: Makar looked great, had jumps and ran wonderfully. but Tampa Bay did a sneaky good job of shielding him to lock each of his rushes.
Makar was able to hit through the middle and haul the puck into the zone, but often he was forced into a spot where his shot was blocked and because of this, he began making passes to his teammates out of trouble . If you’re Tampa, that’s great – just take the puck out of this guy’s hands.
On numerous occasions he made great plays because he took what was given to him – very little – rather than force anything.
Here’s a great piece on Nichushkin that’s also well defended:
And here’s the game just before Lightning’s 3-2 win, where Makar finds Nichushkin again after running great through the neutral zone:
So Makar was good but generally reserved with a skilled team defense.
However, that “avalanche” I referred to above meant that the elite defender on the other side, Mr. Hedman, never really got into his game. It was the Colorado precheck that seemed to get him, and he was left with rushed passes that didn’t make the kind of plays we know he can make that make him special. These are the things that separate the greats from the good – with fast, reactionary plays, can you make a play that helps your team? The zone is big with D-men, and on Nichushkin’s second Avs goal, Hedman failed twice to hit the forecheck with a good pass. In this first GIF, he hits his own teammate’s skate to keep the puck in the zone, then hands it to a teammate who is under pressure and unable to play with the puck.
A good overview of the complete, effective Avs pre-check can be found here:
With the Avs OT winner, it wasn’t like Hedman made one awful play but he hit his own teammate again with a breakout pass at a spot he couldn’t be expected to handle (in this case Steven Stamkos’ heel) and this resulted in Colorado going into the other heading down the hill .
These are the little games that make the difference and the type that Hedman usually pulls off. I say “makes the difference” because it’s in almost exactly the same place here in the GIF below, but getting it behind the attack and out of harm’s way has a different result.
This piece “made the difference”. SportLogiq’s Mike Kelly further dialed in the stats on this breakout stuff here:
When Tampa broke open the puck and got out her end past the forecheck, good things happened. Here’s Ryan McDonagh after that Makar rush, making a tape-to-tape pass to allow the Bolts to play the other way:
(Oof, that Kucherov fake where he squares his shoulders to “shoot” – and make no mistake, he’s got a laser you must honor – followed by the pull past Devon Toews, followed by the pinpoint one Backhand pass, Mamma Mia is an elite game.)
This series doesn’t boil down to a matchup, there are too many great players on both sides to discount them with that simplification. The goalie match is huge, Anthony Cirelli vs. Nathan MacKinnon is crucial, and heck, the coaching match matters.
But when Victor Hedman isn’t elite for Tampa, it limits their ability to play rush hockey, keeps them locked up more often, and swings things in the Avs’ favor.
After the Leafs defeated Tampa in Game 1 of the first round, the verdict was that Hedman had not been himself. He flipped the pucks and looked human. In Game 2, he had one goal and three assists for four points in 24 minutes of ice time and looked like a force the Leafs just didn’t have the answer to. Hedman’s ability to replicate that rebound against an avalanche of forecheck will determine if Tampa gets a jolt or if they get choked out once and for all.