Kraken playoff run starts on Tuesday

The Seattle Kraken have already had a successful season. .In their second year of existence, the Kraken have made the playoffs along with reaching the 100-point mark in playoff points. Now they face their biggest challenge- a best of seven opening round series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche

The playoff schedule is as follows- Tuesday, April 18, Game 1 at Colorado, 7 PM. Thur. Apr. 20 Game 2 at Colorado, 6:30. Sat. Apr. 22, Game 3, at Seattle, 7 PM. .Mon, Apr. 24, Game 4, at Seattle, 7 PM. Games 5, 6, 7 if necessary will be Wed. 4/26 in Colorado, Fri. 4/28 at Seattle and Sun. 4/30 at Colorado. Times TBD.

Admittedly, the Kraken are hardly favorites to advance a long way in the grueling tong war that is the National Hockey League playoffs. If Seattle players and fans are looking for an example of a team that won a Stanley Cup which must people weren’t expecting, one can look no farther than the 2018-2019 St. Louis Blues. On New Years’ 2018, the Blues had the worst record in the NHL. In their final 45 regular-season games they went to 30-10-5 to make the playoffs. After beating Winnipeg in the opening round, St. Louis came from behind against Dallas (down three games to two) the favored San Jose Sharks (two games to one) and in the Stanley Cup finals they again trailed the Boston Bruins three games to two, before winning Game 7 and their only Stanley Cup on Boston ice.

Kraken alternate captain Jaden Schartz  was a member of that team, scoring 10 goals in the playoffs, including a hat trick and a game-winner against Winnipeg. Vince Dunn, selected the Kraken’s MVP on Thursday night was a young defenseman (21) on the team.

“A lot of different personalities on the two teams so it’s tough to make comparisons,” said Schwartz when asked about similarities between the two teams. ”Both teams are tough to play against. And they’re both close-knit groups.”

Even some Seattle fans may be surprised to hear that at least one current Kraken player has hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup in the previous seven years. Justin Schultz was a young defenseman on a Pittsburgh Penguins team that won in it all in both 2015-2016, 2016-2017, Philip Grubauer and Andre Burakovsky were members of the Washington Capitals, 2017-2018, Schultz and Dunn with the Blues, 2018-2019,  Yanni Gourde in 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 (Gourde’s short-handed goal eliminated Jordan Eberle’s New York Islanders in the 2020-21 Eastern Conference finals) and Burakovsky with the Avalanche last year. Unfortunately, Burakovsky won’t have a chance to face his former team, as he’s out for six more weeks after undergoing surgery earlier this week. And don’t forget goalie Martin Jones, who was a backup goalie on the 2013-2014 Cup winning Los Angeles Kings.

“We’ve got a good mix of guys,” said Schwartz. “Guys who’ve played a lot of playoff games. Guys who’ve won (a Stanley Cup). Guys who bring a lot of energy. That’s a good thing. We’ll be excited for the first game and be prepared. I love our depth. We’ve shown that we can beat a lot of good teams when we’re playing our game.”

The defending Stanley Cup champs were 14 points out of first in the Central Division on Jan. 15. They clinched their third consecutive Central Division title on Friday night, 4-3 over the pesky Nashville Predators in a makeup game from November. The Avalanche blew a 3-0 first period lead, but Nathan McKinnon scored the game winner with two minutes remaining. McKinnon, probably one of the four or five best forwards in the NHL had a hat trick in the game and finished the campaign with 51 goals and 111 points.

Mikko Rantanen chipped in with his first 50-goal season. He ended the year with 50 goals and 105 points. Cale Makar, the defending Calder Trophy winner, awarded to the league’s best defenseman and the Conn Smythe Award as the Most Valuable Player in last year’s playoffs. Makar reached 200 points faster than any defenseman in NHL history, accumulating that total in only 195 games. Makar has missed the last seven games with a lower body injury. He and defenseman Josh Manson – out with a lower body injury since Mar. 1- are expected to be in the Colorado lineup on Tuesday night. The Avs have missed their captain, Gabriel Landeskog all season. He’s been sidelined with a major knee injury.

The Kraken were 2-0-1 against Colorado in the regular season. Seattle went into Ball Arena, the sixth game of the season with a 1-2-2 record. They appeared to turn their season around in that contest, posting a 3-2 victory.  Grubauer, a former Avalanche, was solid in the nets before being injured in the final period. But Jones held down the fort in relief  and Karson Kuhlman (remember him?) scored the game winner for Seattle. In the other two meetings, Colorado won in a shootout on January and the Kraken won in Denver on Mar. 5 on Gourde’s overtime tally.

Despite early problems on the penalty kill, the Kraken held the Avs scoreless on six power plays this season. Colorado was sixth in the league overall, on the power play. McKinnon, Rantanen and Makar were held to no goals and two assists in three games. It’s not a total surprise that the visiting team emerged victorious in all three meetings. The Kraken and the Avs were two of the league’s best `road warriors.’ Colorado was 29-11-1 on the road, Seattle 26-11-4. The Kraken are 10-10-2 against Western Conference playoff teams.

“You’ve got to be above .500 to win a playoff series,” said Seattle coach Dave Hakstol. “Colorado obviously presents a great challenge. They have a ton of depth up and down their lineups and a ton of experience. We’ll be ready for that test and challenge. It’s the first time this group has been in the playoffs together. But if you look at the experience we have to fall back on, it’s significant.”

Alexander Georgiev will probably start in goal for the Avalanche. He replaced last year’s starter Darcy Kuemper and finished second in the league behind Boston’s Linus Ullmark with a .919 save percentage. The Kraken haven’t named their starting goalie but Grubauer, a former Av is expected to get the nod, although Jones is healthy again after missing three games with a hand injury. Grubauer has played better than he did in his first season with the Kraken (especially lately, 3-1, .941 save-percentage in his last five games”) but he often gives up goals early in the game, sometimes on the first shot.

Along with Burakovsky, Daniel Sprong, one of six Kraken to make the 20-goal plateau, is day-to-day with an undisclosed injury. If Sprong’s not ready to go, he’ll be replaced in the lineup by Jesper Froden.

While the Kraken boast of their overall depth, on winning teams the best players rise to the occasion. The Stanley Cup playoffs are one of the most grueling in sports. Teams could play a maximum of four seven game series in pursuit of a championship. The games are tighter, more physical and definitely more intense than the regular season. Solid goaltending is a must, but Seattle will need strong play from their top line of Jared McCann, Matty Beniers and Eberle to continue producing.

The Kraken’s top defensive core- Dunn and Adam Larsson- should be on the ice against McKinnon, Rantanen and Evan Rodrigues. Seattle would probably like to counter with Gourde-Oliver Bjorkstrand-Eeli Tolvanen against Colorado’s top forward line. But the Avs have the last line change at home, so there could be some line juggling.

But as Schwartz notes, “we’ve been ramping up. Now the fun starts. It’s an 82-game grind to get into the playoffs.”

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