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  • Preview: Avalanche enter the lions’ den


    Anybody who knows anything about the Honda West Division knows by now that the Colorado Avalanche are becoming runaway favorites to take the division. They came into the year as co-favorites with the Vegas Golden Knights, and have seen nothing but growth from additions and younger players. This on top of their existing superstar core of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, and Cale Makar has resulted in a bona-fide powerhouse.

    For this reason, the Wild opened the day with a plus-140 money line by Las Vegas betting odds, which implies about a 41 percent chance of a win. MoneyPuck.com favors the Avs by about the same margin, offering the Wild a 38 percent chance of winning. This seems like a fair margin, as MoneyPuck has the Avalanche ranked number one in their statistical power rankings as of today. Fortunately, their game preview ranks this as a “not-so-important-game” for Minnesota, as the change in our chance to make the playoffs is not strongly leveraged today with a win or loss. That said, avoiding the fourth playoff position could be important for the Wild, as they’ve proven effective against Vegas all year and beaten St. Louis in a small sample size. Avoiding the Avalanche in the first round would be a nice treat for Wild fans after a five-year playoff series-win drought.

    It has also been said before that we here at Hockey Wilderness enjoy when the Minnesota Hockey Wild hockey club wins its hockey games, and so now we will investigate how the Wild can make that happen.

    The Avalanche have few weaknesses. They lead the league in unblocked shot attempts rate, 5-on-5 expected goals rate, and special teams expected goals rate. This means that they have an advantage in the number of shots, quality of shots based on location, and power play quality creation. They have the fourth-highest power play time vs. PK time rate in the league, meaning they draw penalties at an elite rate while maintaining discipline and avoiding the PK. They’re leading the league in goals-differential at plus-1.32 goals/game as well, and they’ve done so with below-expected goaltending. They are out-shooting their expected goals by about 10 xG, but with shooters such as MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Makar, this could reasonably be expected to continue. They don’t have a team identity based on offense, like Toronto, or defense, like the Islanders - Colorado is one of the top-five teams in the NHL both ways.

    Jack Han, who knows more about hockey than anybody reading or writing this publication, wrote about the forechecking style of the Avalanche that makes it so hard to beat them defensively. In the first game the Wild played against Colorado, they were unable to escape their own zone due to effective forechecking and calculated, aggressive pinches from the Avs’ defense. This led to chipping the puck out with no control, and then either getting a line change or fighting for pucks in space against Colorado’s smooth-skating defense. With so little control in the neutral zone, the Wild had a hell of a time trying to enter Colorado’s zone cleanly. For Minnesota, a team which thrives on clean possession and breakouts led by our defensemen, this is a nightmare matchup. It essentially requires the team to break out quickly and effectively using all five players, and then dump-and-chase once we gain the red line.

    One advantage the Wild will have tonight is last change - for this reason, Dean Evason needs to know which personnel he can exploit with his own line combos. Their most common D-pairing is Toews-Makar. After that, their D-lines are a bit of a jumble, but all combinations of the bottom-four have been effective at 5-on-5. Toews-Makar have been dominant in xGF/60 (Expected Goals For Per 60 Minutes) but more average defensively. This is a signal that they love to play with the puck much like Brodin or Spurgeon, and so pressuring this defensive pair with our checking line could be effective at stifling their chances, while potentially converting. We could also attack their top pairing with Greenway, Eriksson Ek, and Kaprizov, which can both check and attack as we saw two nights ago in the desert.

    As for the forwards, Colorado’s top-six are relatively set in stone, and both lines are elite offensively but average defensively. Most likely, shadowing Landeskog, MacKinnon, and Rantanen is priority number one, and they’ll likely see a lot of Ek’s line or the checking line, as well as a healthy dose of Suter and Spurgeon. Since this line is the leakiest by xGA/60, I think our top line should go toe-to-toe with them; however, this statistic is likely colored by the way teams have matched the line throughout the season, and so it may be harder to score on this line than it appears - likely, Colorado’s top line is seeing top competition from its opponents.

    Burning Questions:

    What to do with the Wild’s second Line?

    The real matchup question is where to put the second line transition squad of Fiala-Hartman-Johansson. This line feels like it could be the crux of the night, as they should be the group that Evason tries to get easy matchups - not that there are many in Denver. If there is a group that can out-skate the Avs forechecking system, and still have the legs and the gas to create in the final third of the ice, it’s probably this line. I’m curious to see if they take draws in the offensive or defensive zone as well, as the line’s defense has occasionally lapsed but they skate and score so effectively on the rush. If they can effectively get up ice and get a shot on net, it opens up opportunities to at least get the best team in the world on its heels.

    Can the Wild play slowly and carefully?

    Rate statistics (basically any advanced stat that ends in “rate” or a percent sign) are a favorite among the analytics community. They are more stable over time and thus more predictive, and they can allow you to analyze offensive play styles and defensive play styles with a single statistic. The one caveat to them is that they don’t show volume - for example, Toronto and the New York Islanders both dominate xGF percentage, a measure of shot quality-for vs. shot quality-against. However, these two teams are opposite in their play speed, as Toronto plays fast and dangerous, creating more opportunities to score and giving more opportunities the other way.

    Essentially, this speaks to pace-of-play. Higher pace of play means more shots-on-goal, which means a larger sample size, which means that the analytics are more predictive. Tonight, the analytics predict that the Wild should lose. For this reason, playing slowly should be a goal for Minnesota. The fewer total shots tonight, the better, because it will increase variation in the game from expectation. In the spirit of March Madness, this article offers more reading on the topic of pace and analytics.

    Can we shut down the best line in Hockey?

    A savvy hockey fan could argue this point - by analytics, they’re only top-ten. MacKinnon isn’t necessarily the best player in the world, although you have to concede that he’s at least close if not in the conversation. For my money, this is the best line in hockey. Put MacKinnon with a playmaker and a grinder, and you get Crosby’s career lines. Put him with two men who have hockey sticks and you get McDavid’s career lines (poor Oilers fans). Put MacKinnon with elite two-way winger Gabriel Landeskog and elite shooter Mikko Rantanen - who shoots 28 percent better (!!!) than league average by MoneyPuck’s estimation - and you have the most dangerous line in the world.

    Sure, you can slow them down some nights. You can score on them other nights. It’s nearly impossible to do both, and for this reason they always give Colorado the better chance to win. Realistically, the Wild are looking to give themselves a chance to win tonight, and hoping the hockey gods and goddesses favor us. There’s no way to flat-out beat the Colorado Avalanche, but it starts with at least evening up the chances while MacKinnon is on the ice.

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