How the West will be won: Golden Knights’ Stanley Cup hopes go through Colorado, and vice versa

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Joe Mahoney/AP

Vegas Golden Knights right wing Keegan Kolesar (55) fights Colorado Avalanche defenseman Dan Renouf (2) during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Denver, Saturday, March 27, 2021.

Thu, Apr 8, 2021 (2 a.m.)

Game 7 playoff stunners have prevented the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche from meeting in a postseason series each of the past two years.

In 2019, the infamous Cody Eakin major penalty call helped San Jose defeat Vegas and advance to the second round, where Colorado stood waiting. Then last year, a hat trick secured by relatively unknown Dallas rookie Joel Kirivanta in overtime of a second-round series killed the Avalanche’s chances of facing the Golden Knights in the Western Conference Finals.

Something unexpected could prevent Vegas and Colorado from facing off once again this year, but they’ve spent most of the regular season looking like they’re on another collision course. “We’re two teams that will most likely play in the playoffs, and if we want to win it all, we’re going to have to go through each other,” Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault said on March 25. “We’re definitely preparing toward that.”

At press time, the two teams were locked in a tight battle to see which finishes atop the West Division in the regular season. Vegas spent the majority of the season in first place in the standings until Colorado recently took over the top spot.

But betting odds still have the Avalanche and Golden Knights almost even as far as likelihood to come out of the West and reach the NHL’s final four—the closest two-team race of any division in the league this season. At press time at BetMGM, Colorado was offered at +125 (risking $1 to win $1.25) with Vegas at +150 (risking $1 to win $1.50) to ultimately prevail. Every other team in the division was at least a 4-to-1 long shot.

With four teams from each division advancing to the 2021 playoffs, it’s a virtual lock Vegas and Colorado will both make it. The only real questions: Who will have the top seed? And how much will it ultimately matter?

Vegas has won the Pacific Division twice in three years, parlaying both those titles—and the subsequent home-ice advantage—into Western Conference Final trips, even in last year’s postseason bubble in Edmonton. This year, the playoffs are expected to return to normal with travel between cities. That adds extra incentive for Vegas to win in the division and capture home ice for a potential series against Colorado.

“You always want the easiest path in the playoffs, but as we saw last year, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee you anything,” Vegas coach Pete DeBoer says. “Big difference from the bubble is home-ice advantage and are we going to have crowds in the building? If these buildings are full, particularly ours, then home-ice advantage is a huge advantage.”

The Golden Knights’ history with the Avalanche is spotty at best. Vegas destroyed Colorado in the teams’ first-ever meeting—a 7-0 drubbing in 2017—but the Avalanche won four of the following five meetings over the next two seasons, and swept the 2019-20 season matchups by a combined score of 13-4.

This season, the clubs have split their six meetings. Those have included a 3-0 Vegas victory February 22, which DeBoer called one of the team’s “most complete games” of the year, but also a 5-1 loss March 25 that he called “a good, old-fashioned ass-kicking.”

Vegas is the one team in the West that’s mostly been able to hang tough with Colorado, which has compiled the NHL’s best goal differential by a wide margin. The Golden Knights have beaten the Avalanche twice in regulation, something no other team has achieved.

Four of the six games between the two teams have been decided by one goal, the most recent a Vegas overtime win. In six total matchups, the Avalanche holds a +1 goal differential over the Golden Knights.

“In an ordinary year, we would play Colorado three times, so it’s been interesting to play them as many times as we have,” VGK general manager Kelly McCrimmon says. “I think when we play Colorado—and I’m sure they would say the same—those games take on real significance based on the quality of the two teams.”

The Avalanche’s roster is undeniably strong. Colorado has one of the top first lines in hockey, with superstar center Nathan MacKinnon flanked by captain Gabriel Landeskog and scoring machine Mikko Rantanen. In Cale Makar and Samuel Girard, the Avalanche have two legitimate Norris Trophy contenders for the league’s top defenseman. And Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer has garnered Vezina Trophy attention as one of the NHL’s top backstops.

And that’s just the stars. The Avalanche’s bottom six forwards might be the best bunch in the league, a group that includes former Golden Knights center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. And Colorado’s third and fourth defensemen, Devon Toews and Ryan Graves, would be many teams’ top pair.

Vegas has some similar attributes. Max Pacioretty, Chandler Stephenson and Mark Stone have comprised one of the league’s best lines for two years; Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo are among the best along the blue line; and goalies Marc-André Fleury and Robin Lehner have both performed among the league’s best.

“Are they a top team that you could face in the postseason? Absolutely,” defenseman Alec Martinez says. “But as for thinking ahead, I don’t really do that.”

Plenty of fans already are, of course. Vegas and Colorado are on pace to secure the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the division, and both should be favored to get past their first-round opponents, likely to be Minnesota and either Arizona, St. Louis or San Jose. The Golden Knights and Avalanche meet twice more in the regular season—on April 26 and 28 at T-Mobile Arena—for what could be decisive games in determining the division winner.

Still, those clashes will pale in comparison to what comes later, if everything goes according to plan—a seven-game series in May with a trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ final four on the line.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

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