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After what felt like an eternity of a week with no games on the schedule, the Colorado Avalanche entered the final stage of what has been the weirdest chunk of scheduling I’ve seen in quite some time.
The third set of back-to-back games in last 10 days from the Avalanche, all with multiple days off in between. Something Andrew Cogliano told me he thought was “dumb”. I tend to agree with him, but as Cogliano also told me, it is what it is and the Avs needed to try and find a way to carve out points against the Winnipeg Jets.
The Avs came into this game sitting four points back of the Jets, while still holding three games in hand. Regardless of the outcome of this game, the Avalanche would go to bed tonight well in control of their own destiny in the Central Division, but a win here would seriously put some pressure on the teams they’re chasing…specifically the Winnipeg Jets.
After having all week to sit and think about that fact, the Avs looked more than ready to go when the puck dropped in Winnipeg.
It wasn’t even 20 seconds into the game before a fantastic breakout out of the Avs’ own zone sprung Nathan MacKinnon on a breakaway and he just whistled a shot by Jets goaltender Connor Hellebyuck to break the ice.
You could see on their faces, the Avs had some jump, and that early goal really revved their engine.
They were flying all over the ice. Winning battles, engaging physically, and their legs were moving. No sign of rust coming out of the long break.
Just a couple minutes after MacKinnon got the Avs off and running, defenseman Brad Hunt maybe got a little too excited and ended up taking a penalty for holding. You could tell he wasn’t happy going to the box. Regardless of what he thought of the call, you could tell that he knew it wasn’t a good time to take a penalty, given the momentum his group had.
Sure enough, the Jets were able to take advantage on a beautiful tip in front by Mason Appleton, and it was all tied up again just three minutes into the period.
I was really anxious to see how the Avalanche were going to respond in this instance. They were clearly the better team out of the gate, but a penalty kind of undid any advantage they had.
It was just shy of 90 seconds later that I got my answer.
A quick 2-on-1 developed at the Jets’ blue line and Mikko Rantanen made the decision to hold the puck and shoot instead of passing, and he beat Hellebuyck clean up over the glove to restore the lead.
They didn’t look like they missed a beat after surrendering the goal against on the PK. Such a staple of last year’s team was their ability to turn the page quickly when things didn’t go their way, and it’s the main thing that I really feel had been missing from this year’s team. It’s been steadily getting better over the last number of weeks, all culminating in that comeback win over the Oilers last Sunday.
I thought they really tilted the ice in that moment. It wasn’t necessarily pure dominance, but that relentless style of play this Avs team is capable of really felt present.
Still before the halfway mark of the period, an extended shift in the offensive zone (that honestly looked kind of like a power play) eventually resulted in a MacKinnon shot from out high that changed direction off of J.T. Compher and eluded Hellebuyck. It was three goals on four shots, and everything was coming up Milhouse for the Avalanche in the early going.
Too often this season have we seen the Avs get out in front, then just give away leads due to a perceived lack of focus. Or to put it another way, they’ve just taken their foot off the gas and haven’t been able to put the game out of reach.
That was not the case tonight. Armed with a 3-1 lead in the first period, the Avalanche were looking to force the issue and put this thing away.
They had to weather a little bit of a pushback by the Jets after Compher pushed the lead to two goals, but it was a storm that was short-lived.
Three minutes after Compher scored his 12th goal of the season, Alex Newhook drove the net and left the puck for a trailing Andrew Cogliano who pulled up on the half wall and found Bowen Byram streaking into the zone late. Byram took the pass, then took the 25’ of open ice the Jets were apparently willing to give him and wired another one over the glove hand of Hellebuyck.
Five shots, four goals, and total control of the game.
The Avalanche took that lead into the locker room, careful not to give any momentum back to the Jets, and hit the middle frame feeling very confident in how they had played to start the game.
The first period was as close to a perfect period as you could play given the circumstances: On the road against the team you’re chasing in the standings who will be desperately trying to get back into the game.
The second period the Avalanche played calm, in-control hockey. They were making all of the right reads, pinching when they should, supporting back on those pinches when needed. Shades of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. There just wasn’t much for Winnipeg anywhere on the ice, and when they did get their looks, Alexandar Georgiev was there with the answer.
About halfway through the period, Compher made a gorgeous pass out from behind the net to find Matt Nieto in the slot, not at all unlike the goal the Nieto scored a couple weeks ago for his first back with the Avs.
There was just shy of half of the game to go, but that goal really felt like it put this one to bed. It took away Winnipeg’s will to win and things were all but packed in.
Perhaps the most important part of having the game sewed up as early as they did, was their ability to more evenly distribute the ice time in the third period. Not only is this key as we come down the home stretch and you need guys as fresh as possible, but especially right now since you’ve got the Calgary Flames sitting in Denver waiting ahead of the game tomorrow.
The Avs getting a *relatively* easy win, and being able to give a few guys a lower-minute night, combined with the game tomorrow being a late start, the Avs did themselves as many favors as they possibly could tonight with this game.
It was a big win that pulled them within two points of 2nd place in the Central Division with three games still in hand. 12-2-2 in their last 16 staring down a date with Nazem Kadri and the Calgary Flames tomorrow night at Ball Arena.