The second half of the NHL’s shortened season has arrived, and with it comes the constant watch over playoff positioning and postseason scenarios.
The way the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche are playing lately, the only mystery might be which team will have home-ice advantage in a potential matchup in the second round of the playoffs.
Barring a collapse, both teams will make the postseason, but the question is which one will finish atop the West Division. The Knights lead Colorado by two points, but the standings could flip, widen or stay the same after Saturday. The teams meet in Denver on Thursday for the first of two games.
The Avalanche have played one more game than Vegas after falling in a shootout at Arizona on Tuesday night. They played without defenseman Bo Byram, who was out with a lower-body injury, and his status for Thursday has not been announced.
The loss ended a seven-game winning streak that showed why Colorado was considered a Stanley Cup favorite before the season. The Avalanche outshot opponents 301-158 in the seven games and lead the NHL in shot margin.
“They put pressure all over the ice,” said Coyotes center Nick Schmaltz. “They pressure the puck super hard, and there’s a lot less time and space than playing against most teams. You’ve got to know where your teammates are, you’ve got to work to support each other. If you’re not doing that, it’s going to be a long night because they make a lot of quick plays and they’re super-fast.”
The Knights are equally potent, and the teams are nearly equal in goal differential. Vegas had its five-game winning streak stopped Sunday but beat St. Louis on Monday to stay atop the standings.
Thursday will be the fifth of eight games between the teams, and so far they have split the first four games. Colorado won the outdoor game on Feb. 20, and the Knights came to Denver two days later and blanked the Avalanche.
That was the last time Colorado was shut out, and the offense has cranked up over the last six games with 32 goals. Stopping the Avalanche will take a strong defensive effort, and Vegas has an emerging star on its blueline in 22-year-old Nic Hague.
Hague stands 6-foot-6 out of his skates, so he provides an intimidating presence when opposing players are carrying the puck. His skating has improved, and that makes him more of a problem for other teams.
“You go against him once (in practice), and he’s got a really good gap and he’s got a really long stick, so you have to be aware every single time you’re going against him,” center Cody Glass said recently. “He’s very difficult to play against just with his size.”
Following the games on Thursday and Saturday ,the teams won’t meet again for a month when they play their final two games against each other in Las Vegas on April 26 and 28. By then the playoff picture will be clearer, and the games could decide which team has home-ice advantage through the first two rounds of the postseason.
–Field Level Media