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Colorado's Path to Playoff Form Requires Balance: Stars vs. Grit

Meghan Angley Avatar
April 2, 2024

On paper, Colorado played a strong game against Columbus. It was strong enough to expect a better result than a 4-1 loss, but it also wasn’t to their standard.

The Colorado Avalanche recently dropped a 6-1 victory over the Blue Jackets in March, but so closely on the heels of the Montreal game, it didn’t feel good to watch them lose in this fashion to a struggling Columbus team. It was the last regular season game against an Eastern Conference team.

Columbus was without several key players, including their starting goaltender, so Daniil Tarasov started in net. The Blue Jackets also missed their captain, their alternate captain, an entire top-six line of forwards, and even more depth and D.

Despite Colorado’s best efforts in the shots battle, Columbus managed their lanes well, Tarasov made important saves, and the Avs’ accuracy left a little to be desired.

Additionally, Some frustration crept into this game in the first half after a couple things didn’t go their way. A flimsy holding penalty on Sam Girard added insult to injury when Sean Walker was head hunted just moments before without a call.

Jonathan Drouin was high-sticked and the play was blown dead to review the penalty while the Avs had possession. It was rightfully deemed a no-call because Drouin’s head was down low, but it stung extra to have the original play stopped while they had the puck high in the zone.

Just a minute later, Columbus scored their second goal. Did the Avs get inside their heads too much?

Neutral Zone Coverage

Two of Colorado’s goal-against started with mistakes in the offensive zone – broken plays they weren’t prepared to defend against the other way.

On the first goal, Cale Makar’s shot was blocked and Columbus took the rebound in transition.

Girard and Makar drew back on the backcheck. Miles Wood was a little disconnected in the neutral zone and entered as the first forward back, but he was too high on the play to be effective.

Girard tried to confront Erik Gudbranson at the wall to tie up his lane, but he managed to get the puck to Kirill Marchenko. Marchenko burst ahead of Makar without contest and beat Justus Annunen five-hole.

On the second goal shorty after Drouin was smacked, Josh Manson went for the puck near the wall and whiffed on the chance. Ivan Provorov gathered it instead and sent the puck out of his end to Dmitri Voronkov in the neutral zone. Voronkov quickly sent a stretch pass to Alexander Nylander opposite of him to spring him for the breakaway.

Girard tried to defend and used his stick to prevent Nylander from passing, but Nylander opted to sail a wrister far-side.

I want to express sympathy for Girard who was left holding the bag on each of these goals. He did not defend them poorly, he just didn’t have enough support in avoidable situations.

With no screen, no traffic, and no passing play, that Nylander goal is probably the one Justus Annunen wished he had.

Shots Battle Deception

The shots finished 46-25 in favor of Colorado and they doubled their high-danger chances 18-9.

Colorado had the shooting advantage, but Columbus made up a higher overall total with attempts blocked through the first half.

This meant the Blue Jackets had the puck in Colorado’s end more than you’d like to see.

The possession game favored the Avs, but they couldn’t figure out Tarasov.

The Avs clearly tried a little bit of everything, and still controlled possession at five-on-five through two periods, but it was the two they spent chasing the game.

Broken plays harmed the Avs in more ways than one.

Through four powerplay chances, Colorado had 12 shots on net and Casey Mittelstadt accounted for four high-danger opportunities. The Avs created five in total (Mikko Rantanen had the other). The Avs had 23 attempts, but they overpassed the puck and hurt their chances.

They looked too intently for a skill play, cycling the puck in search of a seam, but Columbus anticipated this and broke it up.

This is where Val Nichushkin’s absence is sorely felt. He’s more physically imposing at the net-front than Mittelstadt could be. Mittelstadt is highly skilled, but Nichushkin is such an effective screen and can position himself inside defenders more easily.

After the Avs scored three powerplay goals against Nashville, their powerplay situation is not dire, but the Columbus game did punctuate the importance of playing to their strengths.

I watched Nathan MacKinnon try for the give-and-go in the slot with Mittelstadt – a move he has successfully pulled off with Drouin a dozen times – and it just wasn’t the same.

Rantanen tried for the chip play at the net several times, and it just wasn’t going for him. MacKinnon’s one-timer just wasn’t going for him either.

Their usual bag of tricks weren’t working and they needed a little grease.

Get Dirty

Let’s take a second to appreciate that when their skill plays work as they often do, it’s okay to encourage the stars to try for them.

But when it’s just not their night, they need to roll up their sleeves and get a little dirty in search of the greasy ones.

It’s no coincidence that their lone goal came from a mix of their depth D and an AHL call-up.

Chris Wagner won an o-zone faceoff and Artturi Lehkonen worked fast to retrieve the puck. Lehkonen sent it to Walker at the point and Walker ripped a shot toward the net. Wagner was in the shooting lane to help direct the puck in off his stick.

It wasn’t pretty, Lehkonen’s retrieval was an essential part of the play, but it was functional. On a positive note, Lehkonen has recorded 19 points (10g/9a) in 26 games since returning from his injury.

Yakov Trenin has brought energy to Colorado’s bottom-six and on their penalty kill – the kind that can swing the momentum in their favor with a strong, hard working shift. His absence was felt too.

It’s not as if the star players didn’t show up. But it’s an honest fact that the workers compliment the stars – a gritty shift from the third line can extend possession and create an o-zone draw at the next whistle for MacKinnon and company to take the ice.

A big hit or a good kill can energize the group, and it seemed like the Avs needed an injection of that against Columbus. It’s where Logan O’Connor is missed as well.

This is where the rise of the third line can be instrumental to Colorado’s success. Ross Colton’s line with Wood and Zach Parise hasn’t brought it over this last bit. We’ve seen the difference that third line can make when it’s going.

With only seven games left to go in the season, that’s my only minor concern.

I’m not worried about MacKinnon getting held off the scoresheet. 

He was just named the NHL’s second star of the month for March.

According to NHL PR, “MacKinnon ranked among the March leaders in points (2nd; 27), shots on goal (t-2nd; 68), plus/minus (4th; +14), goals (t-4th; 11), assists (t-4th; 16) and power-play points (t-4th; 8) … MacKinnon also sits among the 2023-24 leaders in shots on goal (1st; 369), power-play points (2nd; 44), assists (3rd; 80), power-play assists (3rd; 34), goals (4th; 47), game-winning goals (t-4th; 9) and plus/minus (t-6th; +32).”

My takeaway: jumpstart the third line and gear up for the most important hockey of the season.


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