After a disappointing fall to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday, the Avs had some work to do. On Thursday, Dallas won over the Penguins and then Minnesota lost in the shootout to the Philadelphia Flyers which meant they both inched forward.
To keep pace, Colorado needed to start recouping points wherever they could, and they’d have few reasons not to tonight against Arizona.
The Avs had two big reasons not to leave points on the table. Returning to the lineup after missing time since February 11th was defenseman Erik Johnson. Also returning was top defenseman Cale Makar who missed two games following a lower-body tweak.
Alexandar Georgiev earned his 53rd start in net.
At 11:37, Colorado received their first powerplay chance, and Victor Soderstrom went off for tripping. The Avs battled for the puck along the boards and Val Nichushkin succeeded in getting it out to Cale Makar at the point. Nathan MacKinnon ripped a shot from the right circle and notched his 91st point of the season.
As the period came to a close, a Sam Girard shot attempt was blocked and cleared out of Arizona’s end. Nick Schmaltz was at center ice to pick it up, and Girard fell trying to skate back. Bo Byram skated it to engage him, but Schmaltz 180’ed and completed the pass to Clayton Keller. Keller picked it up coming down the slot and Girard fell trying to reach out with his stick to block the pass – Keller then went in all alone and backhanded it over Georgiev.
Arizona created more chances right at its start, but by the end, Colorado pulled ahead with more chances and zone time, but it was certainly close.
The scoreboard told an uneventful story, but the Avs had an even better period from their first. A big push came later in the period, but the Avs were creating throughout.
With 4:40 remaining, Cale Makar attempted the wrap-around and nearly had it but Karel Vejmelka’s skate denied the chance.
Shortly after, Mikko Rantanen took a tripping penalty and Colorado went on their first kill of the night. Quickly into its start, Val Nichushkin and Andrew Cogliano each had shorthanded opportunities denied by Vejmelka.
Colorado held Arizona to zero high-danger
chances with eight of their own, and the shots were tilted 12-6 (21-14 through both periods).
Arizona looked to have a little jump, but the Avs struck first. Cale Makar started with a pass to Nathan MacKinnon behind the goal line. They worked hard to sustain pressure, passing back and forth. Devon Toews and Nichushkin eventually had to work to retrieve MacKinnon’s blocked shot. It came back to MacKinnon now along the halfwall. MacKinnon passed to Cale Makar at the right point, and Makar wristed it from up high through traffic at 6:41.
Following this goal, the Avs charged ahead similar to what they did in the second period.
After the second period the Avs had against Pittsburgh, the whistles were largely put away for this game in contrast.
With 9:49 left, Milo Kelemen took a tripping penalty and the Avs received their second powerplay opportunity.
J.T. Compher stepped up and scored his 16th goal of the season. Nichushkin worked the puck free along the boards back to Cale Makar up high. He sent a shot toward the net, and J.T. Compher batted it in.
With 2:39 remaining, Arizona pulled their goaltender to bring on the extra skater. At 1:40, Mikko Rantanen’s slam dunk of a shot attempt into the empty net was accidentally blocked by the official’s skate.
Shortly after, Rantanen was rewarded with a call in his favor, and the Avs would get the offensive zone start. He was close to notching his 48th goal of the year, but with the final shot of the game blocked, he would have to chase 50 another day.
Colorado won 3-1 and rose to 90 points in the standings. They would still have work to do to topple Minnesota and Dallas, but it was a much-needed victory.
Balance restored to defensive group: This isn’t an observation unique to just this game, but the results continue to support the genuine benefit of balance within the d-corps. With the return of Erik Johnson and Cale Makar, the group gets stronger on the right side and the minutes distribution is more sustainable throughout each pair.
As an example, Brad Hunt’s average time this season so far has clocked in at 11:11. Tonight, Erik Johnson skated 14:35. As a trusted defenseman and valuable member of their penalty kill, his return is an added boost. Even though his recovery seemed lightning fast, he didn’t look any worse for wear and played a complete game.
Cale Makar’s production pace has exceeded last year’s. Since he’s missed some time due to injury, the overall total might not get there, but the rate has been beyond expectation. With a goal and two assists tonight, he has 64 points on the year.
Makar, who has averaged 26:35 minutes per game this season and maintains the highest time on ice in the league, was held to 24:48 tonight. It’s still a significant amount of ice time, but you see the ways in which he can lean into the offensive side of his game – especially on the powerplay – with a little more runway to just be Cale Makar (and not the version of himself we’ve seen at points this year that tries to single-handedly do everything himself shift by shift.)
Sometimes you need to put on your oxygen mask first to better assist those around you.
In tonight’s availability, Jared Bednar said that he felt like Makar’s name belongs in the Norris conversation again this year. He said Makar has earned it.
When asked what’s been working for him offensively, Makar had an expected response given what we’ve come to know about him.
“I don’t know if it’s me individually,” he said. “I think it’s just guys in general. I feel like every line is giving us (opportunities.) Especially on the back end, we’re trying to give them opportunities to score. Guys are just in good spots.”
Jared Bednar had a little more to add.
“I mean, he’s being modest,” Bednar started. “You see what he does. He just kind of starts taking over the game when we need one or it’s a close game. He starts to push offensively, he can make things happen on his own and for his linemates. The other four guys that are on the ice, he helps to drive that. Him getting 19 points (in the last 10 games), it’s just him pushing to help our team to have success and pushing offensively to make things happen.
Bednar corroborated that the addition of both Johnson and Makar helps “a lot” to restore balance as well.
“The grouping we had tonight, those six guys, you get another right-handed shot back (and) it helps in so many areas: face-offs especially in the d-zone and then you get Cale back as right-handed shot and now we’re a little bit more balanced,” he said. “The penalty kill: there’s all kinds of areas where I think he helps us and he was good tonight. I was a little worried to see how he was going to move, the speed of the game, but I thought he was great. He (played) almost 15 minutes for missing as much time as he did. He’s been working hard off the ice to get ready because he didn’t know exactly when he was going to get back and there’s not a lot of time before playoffs. So for him to come back, it just gives our group back there a lot of balance, adding every D that we add back now just helps us out much more.”
Looking ahead at the future return of Josh Manson, Jared Bednar relies upon the entirety of this d-corps. “We’re gonna need all of them,” he said. “Guys are going to get dinged up here and there. To have that core six that we had tonight was nice. It’s a luxury, I think. The D is the backbone of our team. They’re so important to get us moving out of our zone.”