Analysis: Avalanche lock it down defensively in Game 3

Avalanche forward Artturi Lehkonen taking a shot while Blues defender Justin Faulk attempts to check him

Game Overview

After their first loss of the playoffs Thursday, the Avalanche looked to rebound on the road. The team started off slow, falling behind 4 minutes in off an unfortunate deflection by Devon Toews on a Colton Parayko bomb. It took a bit more time, but eventually, the Avalanche stepped up their game. Most importantly, their in-zone defense was excellent. The Avalanche did an excellent job protecting the center of the ice in the defensive zone, allowing the Blues to possess the puck on the perimeter, which had the downside of lowering the amount of time the Avalanche spent in the offensive zone. Still, it was essential in the 3rd period, especially when they were holding the lead. As seen in the shot chart below, the Avalanche gave the blues almost nothing in the 3rd period, and according to Natural Stat Trick, in the 3rd period, the Avalanche had two high danger chances to the Blues one, and the one high danger chance for the Blues came from behind the net. This is an excellent defensive performance by the Avalanche, and if they can play their dominant offensive game that they have shown before and lock it down like this late in games, they should be near impossible to beat.

3rd Period Shot Chart

Avalanche Defencemen

The biggest story of Game 3 was both teams suffered massive injuries to key players. In the Avalanche’s case, they lost Samuel Girard for the remainder of the playoffs after being their best defenseman in the first two games of the series. Being down to 5 defensemen early, the Avalanche needed their defenseman to step up, and they did. 

Devon Toews was his usual self knocking pucks away left and right. Of the 5 Avalanche defensemen, he was second in expected goals against per 60 with 1.96 while playing primarily against the Blues’ top line. The next defenseman, Josh Manson, after losing his partner, was the Avalanche defenseman ahead of Toews in terms of expected goals against per 60. While he didn’t generate much offense, he could lock it down, which is precisely what the Avalanche got him for.

Looking at the more offensively focused defensemen, Makar, who was very quiet the first two games, especially compared to his dominant first round, looked more like his usual self. Makar used his elite skating to create space, which is very promising as so far in this series, the Avalanche’s biggest issue has been an underwhelming performance from all their stars. The clips below show him using his skating and elusiveness to create chances, and along with that, he created the Avalanche’s second goal with a good shot from the point that Nazem Kadri deflected.

The other two defensemen to step up were the Avalanche’s 3rd pair, Bowen Byram and Erik Johnson. They generated the highest rate of offense for the Avalanche, as both had the two highest expected goals for per 60 at 3.3 for Byram and 3.0 Johnson. Both players are great skaters, which they use to maintain a reasonable gap defensively. However, they can also both use it offensively, perhaps best demonstrated in the winning goal when Byram jumped up into the rush creating a 2 on 1 with Artturi Lehkonen, who fired a shot top corner over the blocker of Husso.

Mikko Rantanen

A big turning point in the game came after the Avalanche tied it up. After the goal, Jared Bednar reunited Landeskog with Rantanen and Mackinnon and moved Nichushkin down to the 2nd line. Both lines had struggled up to that point, combining for a 16.9% expected goals for percentage in over 5 minutes. However, around 21 minutes of ice time after the change, the lines drastically improved to a 54.1% expected goals for percentage. The Avalanche have needed more from their stars this series, and maybe the biggest example is Mikko Rantanen. Rantanen has 3.64 fewer shots per 60 than he did during the regular season. His individual expected goals per 60 have dropped from 1.16 during the regular season to 0.52 during the playoffs. That has led him to have no goals in the playoffs after leading the Avalanche in goals during the regular season with 36 in 75 games. The good news is Rantanen made a massive play late in the game to create the 4th Avalanche goal, crushing the Blues hopes of coming back. As Husso was heading to the bench, Rantanen blocked Perunovich’s pass attempt and then made a nice backhand pass to Mackinnon, who found Landeskog, who buried the goal before Husso could make it back into the net. In the playoffs, Rantanen has made some good and bad defensive plays, but the Avalanche will need him to start creating some more chances for himself. The Blues defencemen are very vulnerable, and the Avalanche will need Rantanen to take advantage of them if they’re going to perform offensively to their potential.

Game 4

Heading into Game 4, the Avalanche will be looking to put a stranglehold on the series. To do this, they will likely need to step up offensively, starting at the top with the Landeskog – Mackinnon – Rantanen line. Another important factor is which defenceman takes Girard’s place in the lineup between Ryan Murray and Jack Johnson, as whichever of the two plays can’t be a liability for the Blues to expose. Lastly, the Avalanche will look to follow up with another strong defensive effort. It will be a good chance to judge their defensive ability based on whether or not they can keep to Blues to the perimeter for the second game in a row.

Data via Evolving Hockey & Natural Stat Trick

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