News out of morning skate revealed a troubling update: Cale Makar would miss tonight’s game with an undisclosed injury. He made the trip, and Bednar described the injury as being day-to-day.
As a result, Colorado returned to their 11-7 structure with a top pairing of Devon Toews and Erik Johnson. Defenseman Brad Hunt, who was named to the AHL’s All-Star game last week, would slide up on the second pairing alongside Sam Girard.
This was particularly troubling against a 51-point Calgary team. Although they sit in the middle of the Pacific and come on the heels of a close loss to the Nashville Predators, the Flames would still be well-coached with a healthier, more complete lineup. After Pavel Francouz earned the three prior starts, Alexandar Georgiev was back in net.
About six minutes into the first period, Mikko Rantanen fed Erik Johnson the puck at the blueline. Johnson’s shot was stopped and Toews blocked the pass off the rebound and knocked the puck to J.T. Compher. Compher passed the puck to Rantanen at the top of the right circle, and Rantanen fired a one-timer in to give Colorado a one-goal lead.
It was Rantanen’s 30th goal of the season. He became the fastest Avalanche player since the franchise relocated to reach 30 goals in a season (43 games). Joe Sakic did it in 44 games during the 1995 season.
About two minutes later, Andreas Englund drew an interference call, and Colorado went on their first powerplay of the game. They were unsuccessful, but Evan Rodrigues had a guaranteed goal if not for a whiff. Jacob Markstrom had come out to play the puck behind the net and accidentally sent to puck right to Hunt. Hunt found Rodrigues at the front of a wide-open net. Just as the powerplay came to an end, Rodrigues goofed the chance, but it was a great look.
Past the midway point, Colorado lost the faceoff in their end, but Nathan MacKinnon burst ahead to transition on the rush. Calgary defender MacKenzie Weegar fell trying to outstretch to stop him, and MacKinnon burst through the neutral zone on the breakaway with Artturi Lehkonen in tow.
MacKinnon’s patience allowed him to complete the cross-crease pass for Lehkonen to tap in. There was some confusion for a moment. The puck had definitively gone in, but the net lifted for a split second allowing for it to hop out. The goal was good, and Colorado had the two-goal lead.
A minute later, Logan O’Connor drew an interference call and the Avs went back on the powerplay. MacKinnon sent the pass from up high to Rantanen behind the goal line. Rantanen attempted to tip it in, but it hit along the boards and ricocheted to Lehkonen who tapped it in.
At 14:12 into the period, a tough shift from Andrew Coglino led to a tripping penalty. The Avs withstood the kill, and Colorado ended the first with a three-goal lead. It was one of the best first periods they’ve had all season. Colorado outshot the Flames 14-12. They capitalized on one of two powerplays and effectively killed their lone penalty.
Calgary was creating chances too, but the Avs were finally seeing the fruits of their labor.
The summary of this period is much briefer. Colorado maintained pressure 5-on-5 but looked a little shakier at points. The Avs created more chances, 12-10, and both teams were held to far fewer dangerous chances at only 2-1 in this frame.
At 6:02, Val Nichushkin drew a slashing penalty and Colorado earned another powerplay opportunity. Through three chances, Colorado forced Markstrom to make three saves, though they had a few attempts blocked in totality as well.
Georgiev also came up with important saves. Between two periods, Georgiev came up with 10 high-to-medium danger saves.
Early into the final period, at 1:46 into its start, Logan O’Connor took a dicey hooking call on Nikita Zadorov. Colorado went on the penalty kill.
The kill started off promising. Val Nichushkin circled the offensive zone in search of a shorthanded chance. Calgary set up in Colorado’s end and cycled the puck around the perimeter. Georgiev made the initial pad save on Tyler Toffoli’s shot from the circle, but the Flames retrieved it and reset. Andersson and Toffoli toyed with it back and forth and Toffoli ultimately whipped it from the top of the circle bar down.
This brought Calgary within two goals.
Calgary pulled Markstrom with about two minutes remaining.
With under a minute left, Nichushkin applied pressure along the boards. Rantanen followed up with the play. Calgary attempted to dish it to the waiting skater at the blueline but it found its way to Toews instead. Toews sent a stretch pass up ice to Rantanen waiting in the wings and Rantanen escaped with the puck. He had inside ice on an open net, but Zadorov hit him with a slash. Rantanen was awarded the automatic goal, and that was it. Colorado won 4-1.
Colorado utilized a conservative strategy in the third. Their focus shifted moreso from generating chances to eating up puck possession to reduce Calgary’s ability to create. Some of the hardest workers on that side of the puck were Logan O’Connor, Alex Newhook, and J.T. Compher.
The team effort to kill time and outlast the Flames ended with a shot total that favored the Flames 35-30. Calgary created the most dangerous chances in total at 11-8. This reinforced the strong play of Georgiev in net. Eighteen of his 34 saves came about on high-to-medium danger chances. With a defensive corps as depleted as theirs, Georgiev came up big in important moments.
Devon Toews holds it down: An exceptional storyline from this game is the stellar play of Devon Toews. In Makar’s absence, his role became that much more important. He played 27:05 and spent 2:10 on the penalty kill. On Rantanen’s first goal, Toews’ slick stick check created the scoring opportunity. On Rantanen’s second goal, Toews was placed perfectly inside his zone to stop Calgary upon entry if need be. Instead, he was able to successfully send the puck ice for a waiting Rantanen. He pivoted as well as he could in the face of changing pairs – with the heavy possession game in the third, some shifts were longer than others. Toews spent most of the game with Girard, Johnson, and even 3:10 with Brad Hunt. All things considered, Toews was a stabilizing force in their d-corps.
Artturi Lehkonen finds finish: Lehkonen’s pace has been on track to achieve a career-high, but even still, the goal-scoring has been a leaky tap. He had two goals and an assist on opening night, a goal streak through three back-to-back games in November, and three goals total in December. In his last three games, he’s really activated his finishing touch with five goals and an assist. The strength in his play has continued to be his doggedness on the forecheck. Especially with Nichushkin’s absence felt at points, Lehkonen has been a consistent bright spot for what he brings to the Avs overall possession game. Now with offensive contributions coming through, Lehkonen is a formidable asset for the Avs top-six. Not lost on viewers is the obvious chemistry he has with Nathan MacKinnon. These two forged a quick connection last year and their chemistry has persisted through this season. MacKinnon elevates those around him, but you can tell when he has the right dance partner to anticipate his timing. They share a similar brain, and Lehkonen’s speed can keep up with MacKinnon’s, making his first goal tonight possible.