Are the Orr-Makar comparisons fair?
Hold off on those Colorado parade plans, at least for a bit more. The Avalanche’s inexorable march to winning the Cup hit a snag on Monday night. Colorado’s aura of invincibility fizzled as the Lightning improved their forechecking play, exposed Avalanche goaltender Darcy Kuemper, and capitalized on the Andre Burakovsky injury.
Are we looking at a speed bump or pothole for Colorado? Game 4 provides a window of opportunity for bettors, but making sense of what happened in Game 3 is the only way to calibrate our wagers properly for Wednesday night.
Colorado Avalanche at Tampa Bay Lightning
Wednesday, June 22 – 8:00 PM ET
In Colorado, the Lightning badly lost the forechecking battle on both ends. On Lightning breakouts, the Avalanche effectively sealed the boards and forced turnovers, trapping the Lightning in their own end, which led to coverage breakdowns. In Game 3, the Lightning pivoted, shrewdly opting to use the flip pass as a method to parachute out of the zone.
The flip pass can provide multiple suitable outcomes. It can stretch the zone and put the Lightning forwards in position to prey on the Avalanche’s marooned defencemen. Other times, it provides the Lightning skaters a second to catch their breath, gap up, and try to hold the line, or at least throw sand in the gears when Colorado tries to regain the zone.
In Games 1 and 2, the Lightning’s forecheck was hindered by the Avs’ skaters impeding their path to the puck with off-the-puck interference. One reason this worked so successfully for Colorado was that Tampa Bay’s forecheck was conspicuously out of sync; Tampa Bay was aggressive when there wasn’t support and passive at the wrong times. The Avs were able to zoom out of their end and fly through the neutral zone.
In Game 3, the Lightning brought a heavier forecheck that fought through the Colorado skaters’ obstructions, and they did a much better job supporting the puck. With less time spent chasing the puck in their own end and more time on the attack, Tampa Bay revealed an Avalanche weakness: difficulty sorting out their defensive coverage.
The two most memorable examples were on the Ondrej Palat and Steven Stamkos goals. Both times, an Avalanche forward let his man get behind him because he was slow reading the play. Poor reads were not just a forward problem. On the Nick Paul goal, Josh Manson had Darren Helm running a pick to give him time, but Manson still panicked and passed the puck to an outlet which wasn’t there.
The Avalanche have oodles of energy when they are mostly playing offence, and defence is short-lived. Game 3 signalled that when the balance of power is more equitable, Colorado can get loosey-goosey. At least on certain nights.
Improved forecheck play is the more nuanced explanation for why the Lightning won. The Id explanation is that Darcy Kuemper lost Colorado the game -- because he was atrocious. Through three games, Kuemper has a -2.3 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx), but those numbers are padded by one of the worst offensive performances of the NHL season (regular and playoffs) by Tampa Bay in Game 2. On Monday, Kuemper registered a -2.22 GSAx and was pulled in the second period.
The final reason the Lightning triumphed in Game 3 is the Burakovsky injury. With Burakovsky playing alongside J.T. Compher and Mikko Rantanen in Games 1 and 2, the Avs had the luxury of teaming Artturi Lehkonen with Helm and Logan O’Connor in a checking role.
With Burakovsky sidelined in Game 3 and likely Game 4, the Avs’ bottom-six looks much flimsier. In Game 3, the Colorado bottom-six combined for two shots and two high-danger chances at 5-on-5. The Compher line with Lehkonen on it allowed two goals and collected zero. The Avs’ depth has been one of the keys to their success, but remove Nazem Kadri and Burakovsky, and the forward group starts to look more top-heavy.
One of the biggest reasons the Lightning clawed back from 2-0 against the Rangers is that the Anthony Cirelli line swallowed up Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. That hasn’t happened in this series. The Lightning haven’t really had an answer for the MacKinnon-Gabriel Landeskog duo. In 14 minutes of time against Cirelli and Alex Killorn, the MacKinnon-Landeskog twosome has a 64.87 expected goals percentage and is doubling them in scoring chances.
We’ll see who MacKinnon and Landeskog’s third linemate is in Game 4, but I have confidence that coach Jared Bednar can gin up offence from the rest of the lineup and commandeer a sharper effort. The Avs can win a low-scoring affair, but that is partly predicated on how their goaltender performs. The Avs have lost only three games this postseason and were undefeated on the road until Monday night. I’ll happily grab the more talented and better 5-on-5 team.
Pick: Avalanche -110
Betting the unders on Alex Killorn’s point total is beginning to feel like a game of chicken. Every game I proselytize it on my Twitter or in my column, it hits, and then the line basically doesn’t budge for the next game. Killorn is in a horrendous slump (14 games!), but the sportsbooks are adamant he will show up on the scoresheet at some point.
It almost happened in Game 3, when Killorn valiantly fought off Gabriel Landeskog and laid a pretty pass on Ross Colton’s stick in the slot. As bad as Kuemper was, he made a great save on this play.
Entering Game 4, I think Killorn is in another difficult scoring situation. He will be matched up against MacKinnon and Landeskog, which translates to a lot of time playing defence and trying to exit the defensive zone. Through three games, Killorn ranks seventh among Lightning forwards in individual expected goals per 60 minutes. In high-danger chances, he ranks sixth. Since his slump started, he ranks 10th among Lightning forwards in high-danger chances and expected goals per hour. With the tough minutes he plays, the modest advanced stats are understandable; it is difficult to create offence when being used as a defensive salve.
In Game 3, the Lightning did a much better job getting the puck below the goal line and forcing the Avs to defend on the low cycle. Killorn is a very smart player, but not the most fleet of foot, so a grinding game that tests the Avs’ defensive coverage and net-front play would appear to play to his strengths. But his line got outshot and outchanced in Game 3, as the Lightning’s accomplishments hemming Colorado in were mostly independent of Killorn’s time on the ice.
In order to win, the Lightning need Killorn – which is why he sees a lot of playing time – but they don’t need him to score. While goaltending has been a problem for the Avalanche, I expect a much more precise and detailed defensive effort from them in Game 4 to compensate for their shortcomings in net. The last time the Avs allowed six goals, they shut out the Oilers the following game.
Even with his linemate Cirelli drumming up offence in this series, Killorn’s speed (or lack thereof) and inability to factor in offence when playing against MacKinnon and Landeskog make him ripe for the under.
Pick: Alex Killorn U 0.5 points -165
One of my favourite things about betting is investing in outcomes I think will happen through indirect means. And Cale Makar winning the Conn Smythe is my way of expressing my belief that the Avalanche will win the Stanley Cup.
The sportsbooks have Makar as a clear favourite to win the Conn Smythe and the reasoning isn’t elusive. Makar has 26 points in 17 games, which is the best points per game of any player who is still in the postseason. He leads the Avalanche in even-strength points. Makar plays an outrageous 26:43 minutes per game on a team that mostly sees its games decided in regulation or a fleeting overtime. He plays tough minutes against top competition and soaks up taxing time on the penalty kill.
Makar is an electrifying talent who can beat players one-on-one after being at a standstill, and he has elite offensive skill. Watching him keep pace with McDavid and Kucherov as they try to shed him reinforces that his skating is among the game’s best.
Pick the Avalanche to win the series and it’s -310, a completely inadvisable bet. But bet on Makar to win the Conn Smythe and it’s -155. Makar winning the Conn Smythe and the Avs winning the Stanley Cup are practically yoked together, as the odds showcase.
How Makar stacks up against his peers is striking. Wedged between Makar and the next Avalanche player is Andrei Vasilevskiy at +500. After that, MacKinnon is +600 and Kucherov is +650. In other words, the sportsbooks believe that if the Avalanche win it is highly likely that Makar wins the Conn Smythe, unless Makar suffers an injury or MacKinnon has multiple heroic games that alter the series.
In the 21st century, only five defencemen have won the Conn Smythe. Forwards and goaltenders have won the award more in the last two decades-plus. But the buzz with Makar has been building for almost two months now. He is being celebrated as not just the game’s best defenceman but a generational talent with Bobby Orr-like qualities. His studied spontaneity with the puck appeals to the hockey nerd and the layman fan. Adding a future to Tuesday’s action seems like the right play.
Pick: Cale Makar to win the Conn Smythe Trophy -155