- Ryan S. Clark is an NHL reporter for ESPN.
It’s not enough that the Colorado Avalanche have won four straight first-round series. They’ve been so strong in the first round that they swept their past two first-round series and only had two first-round losses in four years, with their last one coming after the 2019-20 season.
Then came the upstart Seattle Kraken. Beating the defending Stanley Cup champions in Game 1 was just the start. On Monday, the Kraken jumped out to a two-goal lead and held on for a 3-2 overtime win against the Avalanche in a series-tying victory that saw them lose leading scorer Jared McCann for at least Game 5 after what Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said was “a late hit” from Avs defenseman Cale Makar.
On Tuesday, the NHL Department of Player Safety announced that Makar would be suspended for Game 5. In its ruling, the department stated, “The result of this play is a body check to a vulnerable player who is not eligible to be hit that causes an injury.”
As it stands, the Avs are two wins away from extending their title defense into at least the second round. The Kraken are two wins from their first playoff-series victory less than a year after they were a lottery team. Here are the keys for Game 5 on Thursday night in Denver (9:30 ET, ESPN):
What Makar’s suspension means for the Avs
Makar’s suspension leaves the Avalanche without a top-pairing defenseman who serves in a number of critical roles. Even though injuries limited him to 66 points in 60 games, this season saw Makar become the type of complete defensemen the Avalanche used in every sequence ranging from 5-on-5 to facilitating the first-team power play to being trusted as a penalty killer.
The reigning Conn Smythe and Norris Trophy winner led the NHL with 26:22 in average ice time and is 11th in the playoffs with 25:14. His ice time is nearly two minutes more than the next Avs defenseman Devon Toews, who is averaging 23:17 during the postseason.
During the regular season, Makar was partnered with Toews. In the playoffs, the decision was made to play him alongside Bowen Byram. Together, they provide the Avalanche with a top defensive pairing that’s designed to control possession, facilitate play and provide two-way stability.
Who replaces Makar for Game 5? Avalanche coach Jared Bednar could go in a number of directions. He could opt to use either Samuel Girard or Toews alongside Byram on the first pairing.
Byram and Toews have played nearly 85 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time together this season, according to Natural Stat Trick. It’s a contrast to the time Byram and Girard have spent together, which amounts to nearly 300 minutes in 5-on-5 ice time this season.
In terms of the power play, it’s also possible Bednar could either use Byram or Toews to replace Makar on the first unit. If so, it would leave Bednar seeking a fill-in for Byram or Toews on the second unit, which would then see the Avs go from having three defensemen on their second unit to possibly having two defensemen with three forwards.
Then there’s what it means for the penalty kill. Makar has worked in tandem with Toews to lead the Avalanche in short-handed minutes entering Game 5. Erik Johnson is third, followed by Girard, Byram and Josh Manson.
Regardless of the configuration, it leaves Bednar with Byram, Girard, Johnson, Manson and Toews with the need to find a sixth defenseman. It’s possible the Avs could turn to veteran defenseman Jack Johnson, who played 83 games this season between the Avs and the Chicago Blackhawks. Jack Johnson has been listed as day-to-day and hasn’t yet featured in these playoffs.
A life and depth situation
Let’s start with the Avalanche. Take a glance at who has been scoring their goals: their top two lines. Ten of Colorado’s 12 goals scored through Game 4 have come from its top two lines, with the remaining goals coming from Toews and Makar.
What happened during the two games in Seattle was a microcosm of the Avalanche’s current dilemma. J.T. Compher, Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Makar scored all six goals in a 6-4 win in Game 3, with Rantanen scoring both goals in the Game 4 loss.
So what’s been the discussion within the Avalanche about trying to receive more contributions from different portions of the lineup?
“We got to find ways to score dirty goals,” veteran Avs forward Andrew Cogliano said. “Our depth guys have got to get going in terms of providing some offense and providing some goals in front of their net and creating opportunities. At the end of the day, that’s probably the difference right now.”
Cogliano may have a point when comparing the Avalanche’s situation to the Kraken.
Depth has been among the many items the Kraken have used throughout the regular season and into the playoffs. Of the Kraken’s 12 goals, only two of them can be attributed to their top line, while their second defensive pairing of Will Borgen and Jamie Oleksiak have combined to score two goals.
Borgen opened Game 4 with a goal, followed by Daniel Sprong, who also scored his first to give the Kraken a two-goal lead after the first period. And in overtime, it was Eberle who scored the game-winner.
So the Kraken received goals from Borgen and a fourth-line winger in Sprong before top-line winger Eberle scored the series-tying goal in sudden death. That kind of depth is one reason the Kraken have scored the first goal in each game of the series.
“At the end of the day, we have to stick to our identity, which is depth,” Eberle said. “We play quick and we win by committee.”
Managing without McCann
Hakstol said McCann would miss Game 5 and possibly even more games because of the injury he suffered from the Makar hit. His absence means the Kraken will have to find a way to win in Denver without a 40-goal scorer whose 67 goals over the last two years are more than what Sidney Crosby, Zach Hyman and Brady Tkachuk, among others, have scored in the same span.
McCann, who had yet to score in the playoffs, was replaced by Ryan Donato on the Kraken’s top line alongside Matty Beniers and Eberle. Natural Stat Trick’s data shows that Donato logged more than nine minutes in 5-on-5 ice time with Beniers and Eberle, which made them the second-most used combination in those sequences.
Donato, who had been averaging less than seven minutes in the first three games, received more than 16 minutes in ice time while finishing with five shots, which was the second most on the Kraken behind Jaden Schwartz’s 11 shots.
“We need more out of everybody in our lineup,” Hakstol said. “You don’t expect it to be in that scenario, but we always know that Donny is ready to play. … He stepped in and I thought he did a nice job.”
Finding ways to beat the Kraken’s forecheck
There was a moment in the second period when the Avalanche won a faceoff, the puck made its way to Makar and he was instantly pressured by Donato into a pass before the Kraken forced a turnover.
And then, less than two minutes later, Rantanen had possession but was bumped and pushed off the puck by Borgen.
The Kraken’s forecheck was unforgivingly effective in Game 4. It was the sort of scripted defensive performance that saw them remain aggressive, pressuring the puck in a way that saw two, if not three, skaters attack at once while also forcing turnovers.
It amounted to the Kraken blocking 26 shots, recording 52 hits and limiting the Avs to just 16 shots in 5-on-5 play, which was both the fewest in the series and tied for the third fewest in a game this season.
“They have a forecheck, they hit the red [line], they dump it in almost every time,” Avs forward Evan Rodrigues said of the Kraken’s forecheck. “There’s things to do to get around that and to beat that aggression. I think we have to get to doing those things.”
Bednar was asked after Game 3 about the type of tactical challenges the Kraken’s forecheck provides. He said going back and working hard to get pucks first is a priority — an item he said the Avs struggled with at times in their first two games.
“That next play can’t be a soft play. Not against these guys,” Bednar said. “They’re going to get on top of you quickly and you got to find a way to make sure you’re getting pucks above their forecheck and to be able to create any sort of rush attack, you got to be able to get out of your zone clean.”
In Game 3, that forecheck allowed the Kraken to score two goals within a minute to tie the game at 3-3 in the second period.
In Game 4, the Kraken’s structure limited the Avs’ puck movement and scoring chances, such that they finished with just six high-danger scoring chances in 5-on-5 play, according to Natural Stat Trick.
“Arguably, they have one of the best D corps as far as mobility back there in the league,” Eberle said. “They’re not an easy group to forecheck. They can move, they can shimmy shake you, they’re jumping in everywhere. I think we did a pretty good job of containing them.
“Obviously, they’re going to get chances. They’re the defending Cup champions for a reason. But if we can limit their time and space as much as we can and get there before they can move and stay above them when they are trying to jump up? I think for the most part, we did a good job with that.”
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