If one thing is for certain, 2020 has not been kind to planet Earth. Yes, I'm looking at you COVID-19. We've been without hockey since mid March and it's been torture.
Nobody is happy about COVID-19. The virus transcends political party lines and has been a real drag on the world. To be clear, this pandemic is NOT a good thing.
With that established, some teams have conversely benefited from the impromptu vacation time. Injured players were given more time to heal and teams are able to retool for a summer playoff run.
If there is a team that benefits from the extra time off more than the Golden Knights, it's certainly the Colorado Avalanche. The Round Robin's top seed in the West had many injuries at the time of the stoppage, a good chunk belonging to notable, transcendent players.
Stop me if you've heard these names before. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, and Philip Grubauer. MacKinnon is a bonafide superstar and Rantanen is a rising star in his own right. When healthy, the Avalanche run very deep and are a scary draw for anyone in the playoffs.
Top-end scoring is also a strength of the Vegas Golden Knights, led by the likes of Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, and Rielly Smith. Their ability to put the puck in the net rivals that of the Avs and could leave this game and a potential series up to the goaltenders.
Both teams are sure to deploy a tandem, both with a unknown split come playoffs. Grubauer has the experience in Colorado, while Pavel Francouz is the man with the hot hand.
For Vegas, they have a surplus of great goaltending, with a legitimate 1A/1B scenario. Determining the better goalie between Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner is a decision the Golden Knights brass and fans alike are dreading.
Objectively speaking, Lehner is the guy. He's 3-0-0 since joining the Golden Knights, splitting games 50/50 with the incumbent Fleury. Lehner is younger, steadier, and boasts the better numbers dating back to 2017.
2.69 GAA, .919 SV%, 33.18 GSAA, .850 HDSV%
2.53 GAA, .915 SV%, 19.11 GSAA, .805 HDSV%
Fleury remains a solid goaltender who can turn it on come playoffs. Although it will be hard to determine a starter, the Golden Knights could find themselves with much worse dilemmas. It wouldn't get surprising to see all four goaltenders get playing time this postseason.
While on the subject of similarities, the biggest and most important similarity is arguably both teams' young budding superstar defensemen. On one side is Shea Theodore who has represented Hockey Canada in the IIHF World Championships before his 24th birthday. The cancer survivor just concluded his second straight stand-out season.
Cale Makar rivals Theodore in regard to how dynamic and well-rounded they can be. The consensus Rookie of the Year had a great first season and is on every team's radar moving forward. Makar is a very talented two-way defenseman who gives the Avalanche that much needed second wave of offense.
Makar is second, yes second, on the Avalanche in scoring. His 12 goals, 38 assists, and 50 points are great numbers for any defenseman, let alone a rook. He is sure to improve on the 17th best total ever amassed by a rookie defenseman. Only one rookie ranks higher dating back to 1992 and that was Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks, this season.
Theodore came in right behind Hughes and Makar this season with a respectable 46 points, matching Makar's 13 goal output. Theodore currently mans the second pair and quarterbacks the top Power Play unit in Vegas. The assist totals will come for Theodore, playing alongside Stone, Pacioretty, and Jonathan Marchessault on the man advantage.
On the season, the Avalanche had the Golden Knights' number. They also had a former Assistant Captain of the Golden Knights. The offseason acquisition of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare has stabilized and solidified their bottom six and penalty kill.
In his "homecoming" Bellemare took the opening draw - which he won - and scored a goal on the same shift, on his way to a demoralizing 6-1 victory. He'd add two assists to that goal, essentially letting the Golden Knights know what they lost. The Avs won their only other matchup, going 2-0-0 on the season with a 13-4 score disparity.
In order to beat the Avalanche, the Golden Knights will need to attack. The Avs are a fast, aggressive team and when that's not matched, they thrive. Similar to the strategy employed by the 2017-19 VGK teams, the Avalanche have made a habit of overwhelming the opposition. They don't play an especially heavy game, akin to the Blues, but their speed can make it feel that way.
While unconventional, this new playoff format has done a good job of separating tiers of teams. Both groups of four are exceptionally better than the bottom eight in their conference. All three Round Robin games will he tightly matched and any of the three could be a preview of the Western Conference Final. With full health and rest, each of the top four teams are a tough go and a Stanley Cup contender.
Be sure to follow me over on the Twitters. I don't Tweet as much as President Trump, but there's always good hockey content!