Matt Duchene (Karl Gehring/The Denver Post)
Losing star center Matt Duchene to a knee injury hurts the Colorado Avalanche's playoff chances. But if they don't lock up home ice advantage in the next two weeks, their fate may be sealed against the defending-champion Blackhawks.
The Colorado Avalanche being without star center Matt Duchene for the next four weeks due to a knee injury won't be the difference between them winning and losing playoff games. But there will be ramifications – including home ice advantage against the defending-champion Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round – for Patrick Roy’s team to overcome in Duchene's absence.
Simply put, the Avs have the kind of depth at forward most other teams would kill for. Duchene is Colorado’s top pointgetter (70 points in 71 games), but their offense is centered around a five-man group that includes leading scorer and captain Gabriel Landeskog (24 goals to Duchene’s 23), Ryan O’Reilly (who has the same number of game-winning goals – six – as Duchene), Nathan MacKinnon (tied with O’Reilly for the team lead in power play goals, with eight) and Paul Stastny (52 points in 63 games). Removing Duchene from that mix will force Roy to mix-and-match some of their lines, but there’s more than enough still there to get the job done come playoff time.
Now, if one of the Avalanche’s key defensemen (namely, Erik Johnson or Jan Hejda) went down with a serious injury, the story would be different. Roy has done a Jack Adams Award-worthy job this year in part because he’s implemented a system that does away with zone defense in favor of a puck pressure approach, but if you don’t have players who can make smart decisions on the back end while keeping up with (and jumping into) the play, all the great forwards in the world aren’t going to lead you to victory.
That said, the Avs will need their available talent to pick up the slack in Duchene’s absence, as they’re just a point up on the Hawks for second spot in the Central Division. Colorado has two games in hand on Chicago, but they’ve got only two relatively soft touches (Vancouver and Anaheim) in their final eight games, while the Hawks finish the year against Washington and Nashville.
And here’s why home ice matters in this showdown:
the Avs are as consistent in Denver (25-11-3) as they are on the road (22-10-3), but the Blackhawks are a far more dangerous squad at home (24-7-7) than they are on the road (18-12-8). The last thing Colorado wants is to give their youngsters their first taste of NHL post-season hockey in the intimidating environs of the United Center.
If they can hold onto home ice advantage, the Avalanche could be in a very good position to welcome Duchene back into the lineup in time for the second round. But the results of the next handful of games without him will be a major factor in whether they make it out of the first round.