If you listened to the DNVR Avalanche postgame show after the Colorado Avalanche defeated the Arizona Coyotes 4-3 in OT on Sunday night, you heard us talk about the importance of winning games against teams you “should” beat this time of year.
Over the course of an 82-game season, let’s face it… you’re going to get some stinkers in there. Not only that, but you’re never going to win every game against lesser opponents. Teams at the professional level are too good to be written off as automatic wins, especially in hockey.
That said, with 10 games (less by the time you’re reading this) to go in the NHL regular season, and a race at the top of the Central Division that is as tight as it has been in three years, teams like the Avalanche simply cannot afford to give points away to teams that are actively trying to finish as far down the standings as possible.
After taking care of business on Sunday in the desert, the Avalanche wrapped up their back-to-back in southern California against the Anaheim Ducks.
The Ducks are a team that way underperformed my expectations for the season. I thought they were a feel-good story last season. A strong first half, but they eventually just ran out of gas as an inexperienced team. I believed that they were going to be able to take a significant step this season given the amount of youth and high-end talent that roster boasts.
Not the case. They have been downright awful all season long. They are the league’s worst team in terms of goal differential and came into the night sitting just three points ahead of the last-place San Jose Sharks.
Similar to last night, the most important thing for the Avs in this game was points. Yes, you want to see that intensity continue to ramp up as the postseason draws nearer. Yes, you want to see that consistency and structure last year’s Avs team executed to perfection show itself nightly. That’s all ideal, absolutely.
But for when it’s all said and done at the end of the night right now, the only question that matters is did you get the two points you needed to keep pace or not?
About 28 hours after their game against the Coyotes ended, the Avs came out of the gate against the Ducks… a bit sluggish.
The first five or so minutes looked a little too similar to the third period of last night’s game. Way too many Colorado players puck-watching, and just poor decision-making.
I made the comment last night that it felt like the Avs were expecting the Coyotes to roll over in the third period, and it led to them getting thoroughly outplayed for 20 minutes. The start of this game in Anaheim felt the same. Just lazy play from Colorado.
That eventually resulted in a turnover of a mishandled breakout by Cale Makar and Nathan MacKinnon. Jacok Silfverberg grabbed a loose puck in front, made a beautiful pass to Derek Grant on the back door who tapped in behind Jonas Johansson.
It was a bad turnover on a sloppy play. The players knew it, you could see it on their faces. They knew it just wasn’t good enough. Simple as that. They just had to execute better.
Unfortunately for the Ducks, that goal really seemed like it woke the Avalanche up. They started to buzz in the Anaheim zone, and suddenly it was a battle just for the Ducks to get puck possession.
Relentless shifts in the offensive zone started, and shots from everywhere.
Eventually, it was an extended shift by the Avs’ fourth line that struck pay dirt for the Avs. The puck retrieval was outstanding, and they just outright refused to let the puck leave the zone. Byram took a puck out high, spun off the wall and threw it on net with traffic in the lane.
Anaheim goaltender John Gibson couldn’t find it, and it beat him clean.
Already taking control of the game, that goal looked like it gave the Avs a shot in the arm.
The rest of the period was all Avs. So much so that while the final 60 seconds were ticking off the clock, it felt disappointing that the game was deadlocked at one goal a piece.
Apparently, Nathan MacKinnon agreed.
With less than 15 seconds to go in the opening frame, MacKinnon danced out from behind the net, spun Scott Harrington out of his skates, walked into the middle of the ice and ripped one up over Gibson’s shoulder. Again through heavy traffic.
It felt like a deserved result given how in control Colorado was for the last 13ish minutes of that period. It was a good response to a slow start, and they kept it going once the second period started.
Colorado put on an absolute clinic to start the middle frame. Anaheim couldn’t get the puck, and on the off-chance they did, Colorado took it back at will.
It took just two minutes for them to break Anaheim down with some textbook Jared Bednar systematic work. Move the puck low to high, get traffic to the net, and put pucks on. It was none other than Jack Johnson getting his first of the season when he got a seeing-eye wrist shot from the point through the bodies in the slot and past Gibson. The Avs were rollin’.
Less than two minutes after that, it was a ridiculous cross-ice pass from Nathan MacKinnon to find Val Nichushkin wide open on the back door. Uncontested, no chance for John Gibson.
In the blink of an eye, it was 4-1 Colorado and you could tell this young Ducks team was a little shellshocked.
In just 3:54 of actual game time, the Avalanche scored three goals and began to slam the door shut on this one.
A power play helped Anaheim get their first shots of the period on net, but other than one sequence down low, the Avalanche did a good job of defending the house and not really giving Anaheim much to even build on in the offensive zone.
If you were watching the Ducks’ broadcast, you heard intermission report host Kent French say “It was basically keep away that we saw in that middle frame”, and he was right. The talent level discrepancy between these two teams was really on display.
At the end of the second period, Colorado led in offensive-zone ice time 7:40 to 3:00. Perhaps even more impressive when you remember that Anaheim’s best offensive shifts came in the first five minutes of the game.
Third period started and it was cruise-control time for the Avs. It was a clinic in closing out games. Smart reads, good decision-making, quality puck movement, and committed team defense.
A Colorado power play, drawn by MacKinnon after what felt like an hour-long shift in the Ducks’ zone, resulted in Sam Girard punching home his career-best sixth goal of the season.
The Ducks got a chance to respond with a power play of their own just minutes later, but even that was dominated by the Avalanche.
I said it at the beginning. You really didn’t care how the sausage got made in this one, as long as the Avs came away with the two points. So mission accomplished there, and as it turned out, this 5-1 win ended up being one with a lot to like from the Avs’ side of things.
Tonight was the first time since before Christmas that the Avalanche gave up the first goal of the game and won that game in regulation. The power play has now gone 12 consecutive games with a goal.
Most importantly, the Avs made this one easy on themselves. Even with the slow start. Once they got a lead, they built on it and never looked back.
A huge week for the Avalanche as their next two games are against the Minnesota Wild and the Dallas Stars. Huge Central Division implications at play as those three teams all sit with three points of each other, with Colorado holding one game in hand.
The Avalanche needed to take care of business in Arizona and Anaheim ahead of these looming matchups, they did that and now they need to ramp it up another level.