The unusual conclusion to last season has continued into the 2020-21 NHL campaign, but it hasn’t dampened the expectations for the host Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues.
Both teams have set a Stanley Cup championship as a legitimate goal for this year, which the teams kick off in Denver on Wednesday night. The Jan. 13 opening night is three months later than when the NHL season normally begins and the 82-game schedule has been trimmed to 56, all of which will be played within the respective divisions.
The league has temporarily realigned the standings with a regional tilt, with one of the four divisions consisting solely of the seven Canadian teams. The Avalanche and Blues are still division rivals, this year in the eight-team West, where half will qualify for the playoffs. It will still take four rounds to win the title, with the first two rounds being between the top four teams within each division.
Instead of Eastern and Western Conference finals the winners of each division will advance to the Stanley Cup semifinals.
Colorado and St. Louis are good enough to come out of the West. The Blues are a year removed from winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title while the Avalanche have been close to winning it in each of the last two seasons, losing Game 7 in the conference semifinals both years.
Last season — which ended in September — Colorado was done in by injuries. The top two goaltenders were hurt in the series against the Dallas Stars, but the Avalanche rallied from down 3-1 in the series to nearly win it, losing Game 7 in overtime.
That has only made Colorado more determined.
“What I like is that’s the way our players feel, and we feel we have as good a shot as anybody else in the league,” executive vice president and general manager Joe Sakic said Tuesday.
The optimism is warranted. The Avalanche have arguably the best player in Nathan MacKinnon, who centers one of the top lines in the NHL, and added Brandon Saad from Chicago as part of a four-player deal that sent defensemen Nikita Zadorov and Anton Lindholm to the Blackhawks.
Colorado is deep at forward, goaltenders Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz are healthy and the defensive unit, led by 22-year-old Cale Makar, is solid. Devon Toews, acquired from the New York Islanders for draft picks, will help fill the void left by Zadorov.
The Blues had some major turnover as well. They said goodbye to captain, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who signed with the Vegas Golden Knights, and center Alexander Steen, who retired. They added forwards Mike Hoffman and Kyle Clifford and defenseman Torey Krug through free agency.
Krug and Colton Parayko make up the top defensive pairing for St. Louis.
“They both skate really well, and you’ve got Krug who is a real good puck mover and you’ve got Parayko who defends as well as any defenseman in the National Hockey League,” coach Craig Berube said. “They’ll kill a lot of plays with their feet and they can be dangerous the other way. In the offensive zone, they both shoot the puck a ton. There will be opportunities to do things offensively.”