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Avs-Blackhawks Game 32 Studs & Duds

AJ Haefele Avatar
December 20, 2023

Studs

Sam Malinski
I loved Malinski’s game tonight. The underlying numbers are pretty good and all and his assist was one of those cheap ones that happen sometimes on a power play, but Cale Makar gets plenty of those every year and they’re all celebrated equally so I’m not going to take anything away from Malinski. He made a good play and it eventually turned into an assist. He quietly now has five points in ten games.

What really stood out to me from Malinski tonight was his aggressiveness with the puck. Without Makar in the lineup, everyone else has to do a little more to make up for the loss. Colorado’s defense is annually among the highest-scoring in the league because it asks its defenders to be regular contributors to the offense. Malinski was exactly that tonight.

It wasn’t just in the traditional rushing pucks up the ice or anything, it was in multiple ways that Malinski impacted the offense. He wasn’t shy about shooting, he attacked when he got pucks high in the offensive zone, he made passes through the zone. He did it all.

His best play of the night didn’t result in a point but probably should have as he worked the puck from the blueline down around the net and found Mikko Rantanen in front. Rantanen had time and space and failed to finish, but it was all Malinski on that play. I thought he was Colorado’s best defenseman tonight.

Valeri Nichushkin

He scored two more goals on the power play (he now has nine this year after coming into this season with 19 in his entire career, including 10 last year) and was the driving force on Colorado’s top line. The two goals were him parked in front of the Chicago net being big or outworking guys. Classic Nichushkin stuff, you know?

His speed feeds his puck-hunting mentality which feeds his confidence which feeds his speed. You see how it all works for him? It’s a sight to watch when he is fully geared up as he was again tonight. He was even a touch too unselfish at times when he passed pucks out of the center of the ice to teammates in less dangerous scoring areas but one pass he did make that could have been spectacular was his between-the-legs drop to Bowen Byram, who wasn’t prepared and whiffed on the puck with lots of net to shoot at.

For my money, this is the best version of Nichushkin. He was awesome tonight and I thought the penalty on him was completely made-up silliness so clearly I’m not docking him points for it.

Duds

The missed opportunity

This week was about Colorado getting their mojo back. They’ve been in a funk and holding serve just enough to keep the Dallas Stars and Winnipeg Jets from overtaking them in the Central Division but the games-in-hand factor favors both of those clubs and the Avs were gifted a cupcake schedule this week with San Jose and Chicago on the schedule in consecutive games.

The Blackhawks were on a losing streak and missing eight players they were expecting to be contributors to what was already a terrible roster. They were in last place in the NHL with a ghastly 9-20-1 record. They had no business winning this game no matter what injury issues the Avs themselves were dealing with.

The numbers make it even more frustrating. Chicago went the final 12 minutes without registering a shot on goal. In a third period in which they entered tied 2-2, they managed only one shot attempt in over 13 minutes of 5v5 play and zero scoring chances and high-danger chances. Zero!

The one high-danger chance they created on the power play in the final 20 minutes they scored on and it was their final shot of the game. Somehow, they won. It’s a fiasco for the Avalanche, who were hoping that starts against San Jose and Chicago would be good for Alexandar Georgiev to get his mojo back. It didn’t happen as he allowed three goals on 22 shots.

This is the softest portion of the schedule for the Avalanche. Things get much tougher once into January and February, especially for a team that is now only 7-7-2 on the road and they have extended road trips in each month. They need to make the most of this stretch and even if they win the rest of their games this month, this game will stand out as a missed opportunity.

There is no dressing this up as anything other than a major letdown. In Chicago. Again. It is exactly as annoying as last year’s version of this game.

Bowen Byram

Byram was a mess tonight. His turnover on the first Chicago goal is the kind of shockingly lazy, selfish play that has not really defined him in the early portion of his career but has been a little too common this season. He has time and space and options, everything a guy as talented as him needs to get his team moving through the neutral zone with speed.

None of that happened as he skated right into Connor Bedard, who swiped the puck from him and made a play that helped create the goal.

It never got better for Byram and the numbers really hammer that home. At 5v5, Chicago only created 16 scoring chances (a very low number) and Byram was on the ice for 10 of them. Is that all his fault? Of course not, but the closest Avs were two other guys who weren’t good tonight in Devon Toews and Mikko Rantanen with eight. The Blackhawks feasted on Byram.

In theory, you’d hope that Byram’s offensive skills could help offset a poor defensive night but he didn’t do anything on that end. His best chance of the game came when Nichushkin dropped a puck between his legs and Byram didn’t react in time and whiffed on his shot attempt.

The best play from Byram was clearing a puck off the Avalanche goal line that had snuck through Georgiev and stopped. That was good and I’ll give him that, but the rest of it? Bad.

Unsung Hero

The power play

Colorado scored on its first two power play chances and was dangerous on the third when they created a couple of high-danger chances. That’s a good game for that unit and you saw them change up their formula for success by working less from Toews up high in the zone and more down low. Teams know the Avalanche prefer playing through Toews/Rantanen/Nathan MacKinnon and using the other two guys for the bumper spot and puck retrieval.

That was different tonight as Jonathan Drouin worked behind the goal line a bit more and it was a nice feed from him to Nichushkin in front for the first Avalanche goal. The second is similar in that Rantanen successfully found Nichushkin in front but did so from a scoring position so the Chicago PK had to respect his ability to shoot.

Wrinkles in special teams are important because video scouting is so good that teams can easily get comfortable with gameplans if you get a little too predictable. I’d like to see the Avs throw a couple of these looks at teams again this week to force teams to adjust to it, especially with two games in a row against Arizona coming up before and after the Christmas break.

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