Joe Sakic led the Colorado Avalanche as an elite center, not the general manager, the last time the Avs qualified for the Western Conference final.
The Avs can return to the third round of the NHL playoffs for the first time in 18 years if they can defeat the San Jose Sharks Wednesday (9 p.m., ET, NBCSN).
If the Sharks lose, they will be the seventh No. 1 or No. 2 divisional seed to be eliminated in the first two rounds. The Boston Bruins, the No. 2 seed from the Atlantic Division, is the only team from the top eight already in the conference final.
The Sharks already have won a Game 7 this season, beating the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round. They scored four goals on a controversial five-minute cross-checking major and eventually won in overtime.
The Sharks' postseason inconsistency has centered on their inability to keep the puck out of their own net. Their 3.15 playoff goals-against average is worst among the teams still alive in the postseason. They have given up four or more goals six times in 13 games.
Colorado Avalanche goaltender Philipp Grubauer and center Nathan MacKinnon get into a scuffle with San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton in Game 5. (Photo: Stan Szeto, USA TODAY Sports)
The USA TODAY Sports NHL panel picks who will be moving on to the Western Conference final after Wednesday's Game 7.
Kevin Allen, Sharks: Captain Joe Pavelski could be coming back from injury and that should give the team a lift, plus they have the experience of winning a Game 7 this postseason. The key will be goalie Martin Jones. His save percentage is .908 this postseason. He will need to be .925 or better for the Sharks to win.
Jimmy Hascup, Sharks: Kudos to the Avalanche for pushing this to seven games. San Jose gets my pick here because of home ice, experience and a deeper, more skilled roster. The X-factor remains Martin Jones, who posted three games of at least .926 save percentages then gave up four goals on 26 shots in the Game 6 loss.
Mike Brehm, Avalanche: I picked the Avalanche in the series and will stick with them, though the odds clearly favor the Sharks. San Jose is 3-0 in elimination games this season, they're at home and they could be getting back injured captain Joe Pavelski. But it will be hard to hold Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen off the scoreboard for three games in a row. They'll be a key to the Avalanche upset.
Jace Evans, Sharks: San Jose has simply been a different team in the Shark Tank, averaging twice as many goals at home (28 total in seven games) as they have on the road (12 total in six games) in these playoffs. The Sharks have a decided advantage in experience that should lead the way in front of the hometown crowd.
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