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Avs-Penguins Game 71 Studs & Duds

AJ Haefele Avatar
March 24, 2024

Studs

Nathan MacKinnon

I’m putting him here first because his three-point afternoon put him at 122 points on the season, officially the most productive season in Avalanche history.

It took him a while to get it geared up in this game but after the Avs cut it to 4-2 late in the second period, you saw him fly through the neutral zone and slice through the PIT defense and get stopped on the doorstep. With that, you knew the Penguins were going to have a problem on their hands in the third period.

From that moment on, MacKinnon finished with three points, including the game-tying goal on a rocket of a one-timer. His game caught fire and, no surprise, so did the Avalanche. MacKinnon extended his home-scoring streak to 34 games, now just six shy of tying Wayne Gretzky’s record.

The play I really want to highlight here is the game-tying goal. There’s great work by Devon Toews and Jonathan Drouin here but watch how MacKinnon separates from Sidney Crosby through the neutral zone and creates a shooting lane for himself.

You see when this video starts that Crosby picks up MacKinnon in the neutral zone and goes to mark him. He’s looking around to see what he needs to cover and he positions himself to take away a backdoor pass to MacKinnon.

Most NHL players would still drive the back post because it’s just what you do in that spot. Instead, MacKinnon slams on the brakes, separates from Crosby, and puts himself into both a passing and shooting lane.

Drouin makes a perfect pass through the seam created by MacKinnon stopping and then MacKinnon rocketed the puck through Tristan Jarry to tie the game. It’s exceptional high-level hockey.

I don’t want to overlook this, but MacKinnon also won the pivotal overtime faceoff against Crosby and the Avs never relinquished possession.

Jonathan Drouin

At points in this game, it felt like Drouin was Colorado’s best forward. He was flying around the ice and involved in everything. He was so good that head coach Jared Bednar swapped him onto Colorado’s top line and dropped Val Nichushkin onto the second line and it sparked both groups, but especially that top unit.

Drouin and MacKinnon immediately clicked (who knew?) and took over the third period. Drouin’s one-timer of a goal was surprising because, well, Drouin doesn’t like to shoot much but a one-timer? What?

The play in overtime, however, is really the film that jumps out when you’re talking about a player transformed in Jonathan Drouin.

Earlier this year, we saw Drouin’s first overtime experience was extremely timid. He looked like he was afraid of making the big mistake that might cost them the game and he quickly hopped off the ice.

In this game? He started the regroup in the neutral zone and picked up speed, got the puck and powered past Kris Letang on the outside. Not stopping there, Letang actually got his stick on Drouin’s hands and was to be called for a penalty but Drouin played through the infraction, outwaited the goaltender and dropped an easy finish into the bucket for the game-winning goal.

Drouin was fantastic.

Goonies never say die!

Down 4-0 in a game they had not played well and were not getting any breaks in, you could understand if the Avs took their foot off the gas a bit and decided to pack it in and try again on Tuesday night against Montreal. They had won eight straight games and nobody was going to trash them for a bad loss on a weird start time.

It’s just not who this team has allowed themselves to become, however. They found their footing in the second period and built from there. Two goals late in the second period created a ton of momentum heading into the final frame and it almost felt inevitable that Colorado would tie it.

The Penguins have gone away in the playoff race and were getting rolled over all of a sudden and a surging Avalanche team found their legs and confidence and were skating downhill.

It was the Avalanche depth that got things started as the third and fourth lines created both of the second-period goals to get the game moving in the right direction and the stars took it from there.

Resiliency is a key trait found in Stanley Cup-winning teams and this Avalanche team has it in spades. They are probably a little too comfortable playing from behind, but they don’t panic and dig their heels in when things don’t go their way, as evidenced by them leading the NHL in comeback wins this season.

Duds

The first period

What in the absolute hockey hell was that? I know it’s pretty inside baseball but the Penguins generated 2.39 expected goals at 5v5 in this game and 1.61 came during the first period. The Avalanche defense took hold eventually, but that was one of the worst periods of the season for Colorado.

The wonky start time might have contributed to it today and I’m willing to go with that. I think some of the conversations about Colorado’s struggles early in games is a little overblown as they have conceded the first goal just four times in the 10 games they’ve played this month.

Two of those have come in the last two games so I think the recency bias makes it feel worse than it is but the Avs have not killed it on that front (they’ve scored the first goal 38 times and given it up 33 times) this year.

Anyway, in this game they were horrific and there is no sugarcoating any of it. Alexandar Georgiev keeping this to just 2-0 was a win the Avs needed and the second goal still feels a touchy iffy on Georgiev.

Mikko Rantanen

There was a lot of great stuff that happened in the second half of this game, but Mikko Rantanen was largely a witness to most of it and was a primary culprit in the struggles that created the 4-0 deficit early on.

He was far from the only player to struggle during that first period but my goodness was it tough to see him get his pocket picked by Sidney Crosby and that turn into a goal against.

That and his lack of impact on the comeback are the two things that have him in this spot for me. I would also consider putting Val Nichushkin and Casey Mittelstadt in these spots, especially Mittelstadt after he threw away a 3v1 opportunity created by Nichushkin’s aggressive puck-hunting with a clear case of overpassing the puck. Just shoot it, Casey.

Unsung Hero

Devon Toews

It started poorly for Toews (as it did for everyone, let’s be real) as he was way too casual with his coverage on Jesse Puljujarvi in front of the net on Pittsburgh’s first goal. It’s a strange bounce and all, but Puljujarvi outplayed Toews in that spot and that is a matchup that should heavily favor the Avalanche.

Things improved, however, as Toews started engaging the offense more as the game went on and by the third period was flying up the ice with confidence again. He led the rushes through the middle of the ice on both of Colorado’s third-period goals and made the right passes to the right guys. He drove the net and snagged assists on both goals.

This was one of my pregame keys to the game because Pittsburgh’s transition defense is truly terrible and Toews is at his two-way best when leading that action and reading the ice. The Pens got lost on both of those coverages and it was in part because of his aggression and smarts.

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