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Colorado's Top-Six Renaissance: The Rise of a True Powerhouse

Meghan Angley Avatar
March 23, 2024

The Colorado Avalanche are playing their best hockey of the season. With a 6-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, they extended their win streak to eight games and sit atop the Central Division – at least for now.

Not every game needs to be decided in such a dominant fashion, but it is a reflection of how effective Colorado’s current roster construction is.

The formula for any hockey team typically includes: get something from your top players, secondary scoring, and decent goaltending.

Colorado’s top-six has experienced a revival. The team leads the league in shots-for per game in the month of March, and their stars are at the center of it all. Several top players are rolling right now, and the arrival of Casey Mittelstadt has opened a door of possibility.

Additionally, the Avs can count on contributions from their D as an extension of their scoring.

When Colorado’s defense puts up four points and the third line gets a goal from Ross Colton and company, it sends their game into another tier.

Columbus’ Damon Severson put it perfectly in his postgame comments:

“That’s a top team in the league, if not the best one right now. They have such a good mix of players, good goaltending, first line, fourth line, the defense. They get how to play, they know how to play the right way… That’s a team that gets it. They know to keep coming…”

Night of Career-Bests

The Columbus game captured so many accomplishments for Colorado’s stars.

Cale Makar’s assist on Nathan MacKinnon’s 43rd goal of the season marked a new single-season high in assists for Makar (59) and goals for MacKinnon (43).

Mikko Rantanen’s assist on Val Nichushkin’s goal broke his single-season career-high with 57. 

Val Nichushkin’s 26th goal of the year is also his career-best, and it was a Colorado masterclass.

Josh Manson forced a turnover along the boards and Rantanen collected the puck and carried it from blueline to blueline. Rantanen gave the puck to Mittelstadt and he sent the seam pass to Nichushkin near the right-circle. Nichushkin worked around Zach Werenski and got in front of Johnny Gaudreau to wrist the puck in – alternating on his forehand-backhand to protect the puck.

With two goals against the Blue Jackets, Rantanen is one away from his second 40-goal season. He’ll become the sixth player in franchise history to achieve this feat multiple times.

MacKinnon’s two-point night brought him to 119 points and moved him past Joe Sakic (118) for the second-most by a player in a season in Avs history – just one point away from tying Sakic’s leading record at 120.

MacKinnon’s Battle

In the second period, Jared Bednar swapped Mittelstadt and MacKinnon from their respective lines. Bednar didn’t think MacKinnon’s line was going and wanted to jumpstart it with a new look.

MacKinnon was clearly frustrated with his early performance in this game. Following the change, he slammed his stick against the glass after yet another broken play in the offensive zone.

MacKinnon’s home point-streak was temporarily threatened.

“There’s not a guy on that bench that didn’t know he hadn’t had a point yet, and when he got it, everyone was pretty happy,” said Bednar.

Rantanen’s stick disturbed a Columbus play, but the Blue Jackets still broke out the zone and tried to jump Colorado off the rush.

Makar stood Alexandre Texier up at the blueline and sent the stretch pass to MacKinnon for the breakaway. In all alone and with quick hands, MacKinnon found a pocket above Elvis Merzlikins’ hip, under his stick, and a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders.

He extended his home point streak to 33 games and surpassed Guy Lafleur (32 GP in 1978-79) and tied Wayne Gretzky (33 GP in 1985-86) for the second-longest run in NHL history. Gretzky still holds the main record with a point in 40 consecutive home games in 1988-89. 

MacKinnon’s ability to work through his obvious frustrations is a testament to his personal growth. He’s poured a lot into becoming more level-headed, but he’s not immune from his emotions boiling over. 

His effort never waned and he battled through it. He finished with a team-high eight shots on net and two additional attempts.

He was a primary creator on their powerplay opportunities and helped Rantanen convert on the man-advantage later in the contest.

Colorado cycled the puck inside homeplate. MacKinnon used Jonathan Drouin for the give-and-go and sent the puck across the slot to Rantanen in the right-circle. Rantanen dropped to his knee and banged the one-timer home.

Everyone is made better with MacKinnon on their team.

Mittelstadt acknowledged his new view of MacKinnon now as his teammate.

“Lucky to have him on our side,” he said. “I think even watching from your own bench and he’s on your team, it’s a lot more fun than chasing him around. Extremely impressive what he’s doing.” 

Team Effort

Colorado didn’t start the Columbus game the best. They looked lethargic like they were just going through the motions.

The early goal-against served as a wake up call. Colorado didn’t get sorted out quickly enough on the arrival in the defensive zone.

They acknowledged the breakdown and worked past it.

“I think in the first, we maybe tried too many plays off the rush,” said Rantanen. “Second period, we made an adjustment [to] put the pucks more behind their D and try to get our forecheck rolling, which we did. I think we created a lot of chances from the forecheck. I think that was the turning point though, we didn’t try [to] make too many cute plays.”

In the first three minutes of the second period, a good shift from the fourth line helped to swing the momentum. Brandon Duhaime and Yakov Trenin chased pucks on the forecheck which led to an extended shift that ended with them back in the o-zone and an Andrew Cogliano shot on goal.

Eventually Columbus got control of the puck and tried to start on the rush, but Zach Parise chased Gaudreau into the neutral zone and hounded him. Sean Walker assumed possession and sent the puck up ice. Miles Wood dropped back to carry it in and left it for Parise on the wall. Parise threw the puck on net and Ross Colton buried it among the chaos – he tracked the puck and found it dribbled under Merzlikins so he banged it in.

It takes a village.

In Colorado’s case it’s a village with extremely talented villagers, but a village nonetheless.

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