Colorado Avalanche Misunderstand Playoff Hockey

Apr 7, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson (6) is called for boarding on this hit on Dallas Stars defenseman Johnny Oduya (47) and is given a game misconduct during the second period at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 7, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson (6) is called for boarding on this hit on Dallas Stars defenseman Johnny Oduya (47) and is given a game misconduct during the second period at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

The Colorado Avalanche, though inconsistent, did try to show up for big games this year. However, the way effort manifested itself shows the Avs don’t understand real playoff hockey.

“Playoff hockey” is perhaps the biggest cliche in the sport. However, it is one that everyone falls for. Every coach on the face of the Earth thinks that if they can just get their team to finish every check, block every shot, and sprint everywhere on the ice they can’t lose.

Even though I have been of the belief that playoff hockey is largely misunderstood for years, I usually begin every year coaching with the mindset that our team will play just this way and win every game.

But there are numerous misconceptions about playoff hockey that we need to shed light on before we harass the Colorado Avalanche for their lack of ability to play big games.

 What Is Playoff Hockey?

This may seem like a simple question, but I think it has changed dramatically in recent years and the Colorado Avalanche haven’t caught on. So before we can even discuss what the Avs are missing, let’s define playoff hockey as we see it currently.

Some things have remained consistent from the old adages of playoff hockey. Players are frequently playing through injuries without revealing it to the public so that opponents aren’t aware of any weak spots.

The attitude is still a “do anything to win.” You’ll see more blocked shots, hustle in seemingly meaningless places (like back to the bench), and a more physical game.

However, the physicality and style of playoff hockey has changed in recent years for interlocking reasons. Playoff hockey used to be defined much by the LA Kings style from the last couple years — dump and chase and finish every check. This has changed drastically in the last three years.

Teams are still more adverse to risking bad turnovers, but modern statistics have showed us how poor a play dumping the puck is if you can maintain possession. So that has been swapped out for the much more beneficial, and familiar strategy of puck control (for most teams of course).

And because teams are dumping the puck less, the hits have dropped among most teams (with some caveats). Most teams still have one line that is going to go, dump the puck every possession, and just go pound the other team’s defensemen. But the majority of players aren’t going to finish every check on every shift anymore, and we’ll address that with what the Avalanche have failed to comprehend.

Colorado Avalanche Playoff Hockey Attempts

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The easiest examples of the Colorado Avalanche attempting playoff hockey came from their games against the Minnesota Wild. This is most likely because A: rivalry, B: that’s who they were battling for a spot most the year, C: the hurt.

And every game I hear a Wild player say something along the lines of “We just have to weather the storm and then attack.” And I see on Reddit 20 comments of “If the Avs tried as hard to put the puck in the net as they do at hitting people, they would probably win these games.”

And both of them are completely right.

I’m not going to sit here and lie to you and say that checking’s only purpose is to separate the man from the puck. That is checking’s direct purpose, but checking also tires other team’s defense out as well as forcing mistakes as players brace for hits instead of worrying about the pass.

Here’s the thing though — the majority of the extra benefits have been eliminated from the game. Hits are mostly clean enough that players aren’t terrified of not knowing where the next hit is coming from. Therefore players aren’t bracing as much for hits anymore (in addition to the onus of a clean check being shifted to the checker now). And for some reason people forget there are two people involved in every check, and it can be just as tiring for the checker as it is the receiver.

And those are just the benefits of hitting everything that once existed. We have now seen them show diminished returns in recent years. There are also downsides that have always existed.

For example, when one of the Colorado Avalanche forwards takes two extra steps to finish a check instead of using that time to start backchecking, it gives the opponent two extra steps of time to work with. Additionally, with the proliferation of D jumping up in the play, if a forward misses a check and ends up on the ice, it can quickly end up a odd man rush the opposite way.

So, checking a player without the puck is largely a risky, and return-less endeavor. In addition whenever the Avalanche get in their big game, hit everything mindset, puck possession goes out the window. As an already poor puck possession team, they do what teams stopped doing because it led to a lack of puck possesion.

It was so painful watching the Wild breakout against the Avalanche; here’s how it went:

  1. Avs dump puck in, first guy follows puck, second goes to the other side to cut off D to D
  2. Wild D get to puck, immediately whip it up the boards
  3. The Avs have two guys deep, one of whom decides to finish his check even though the puck is going towards his net. “Eh,” he says, “I’ve come this far”
  4. The Wild pick up the puck with usually a 3 on 2, sometimes a 3 on 3, and sometimes a 4 on 2
  5. The Avs never keep the puck, as they dump, waste energy hitting guys who don’t even have the puck anymore, and then are tangled up in the offensive zone instead of playing “defense.”

Listen Avs, you’re one of the fastest teams in the league, why the hell would you give the puck over if you don’t have to? And then you escalate your lack of defense skills by going to hit a player who doesn’t have the puck. And then they score, because you are too busy trying to hit people to play hockey.

I think Dallas Eakins put it perfectly when his team’s toughness was questioned:

"You know what the perfect game is? The perfect game is no hits. You know why that is? It’s because you have the puck. You don’t have to hit anybody. You have the puck."


Honestly, I think when I drafted this up at work (hopefully my boss doesn’t read this), I had more points. But the truth is it’s pretty simple. I could list more reasons why teams don’t play this way anymore, but the reasons are moot compared to the overall: the Colorado Avalanche lose nearly every game they play this way.

I thought there was only one team that put an emphasis on finishing hits across all lines this playoff, the Washington Capitals. And that’s where the idea came for this post. The Caps were the best team all regular season possessing the puck, passing, and out-skilling they’re opponents. But then they played the Penguins, and they looked like a goon team at times.

I’m not saying it’s the only reason the Caps lost, but, man, if they would just have played their game instead of an idealized and antiquated notion of “playoff hockey” I do think they would have fared better.

Next: Should The Avs Trade Barrie?

And it’s the same thing for the Avalanche. They have a fast, skilled team. Why they think the path to victory is paved with hits and blocked shots is completely beyond me. But if they would stop obsessing over meaningless actions and play hockey they would win a lot of games.

I’ll finish with a quick anecdote. I can’t find the article, but when advanced stats were taking over there was an article describing the importance of accurately defining what will create success.

Back in the year the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, someone decided it was all due to heart and created a “toughness” stat. This was just hits and blocked shots per game added together, and what did the author find? That the Bruins were –according to his/her own metric — one of the least tough teams in the league. It wasn’t until a smart statistician pointed out that it’s hard to hit or block shots when you have the puck, that the original writer realized how useless his stat was for winning hockey games.

The Colorado Avalanche need to take this lesson to heart.