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I always laugh when guys like me (media types, I mean) categorize a rash of injuries as a possible “blessing in disguise.” Like a team somehow gets better or has an improved situation because a grip of injuries ripped through their team and forced them to play short-handed.
For the second time this season, however, the Avalanche are dealing with mounting injuries at the forward position and instead of wilting, they are responding by doing just enough to win games.
That continued tonight when the Avalanche eeked out a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres. With just two of their original top-six forwards from the start of this season in the lineup, Colorado got goals from Gabe Landeskog, Martin Kaut, and J.T. Compher to put them over the top against the Sabres.
It was a close game throughout as each time the Avs scored, the Sabres responded. Buffalo erased deficits of 1-0 and 2-1 before Compher’s game-winning goal halfway through the third period proved one too much. The final score gave Colorado it’s third straight win in one-goal games.
“That’s a few in a row now that have been one goal, grind it out,” Erik Johnson said. “It’s going to be what it’s like in the springtime. Good to get those kinds of games dialed in now because it’s going to be what the games are going to be like coming up. It’s never an easy game, no matter who you’re playing. It’s always tough games. That’s what the NHL is now. Just because a team is x amount of points behind you in the standings, they’re still going to give you tough games just like LA, Anaheim, now Buffalo.”
With just 10 such wins (27th in the 31-team NHL) under their belt, these games provide valuable experience for this group as they prepare for the postseason.
“It’s good” Johnson added about winning close games. “We’re figuring it out. Like I mentioned earlier in the season, there are peaks and valleys throughout the season. We learned a lot and those errors when we’ve blown games, sometimes it’s going to happen. They have an extra guy at six on five. They pretty much missed an open net tonight. You get a little lucky there, they got a little lucky on their first goal when it hits me. It’s give and take out there sometimes and we shut it down at the end when we had to.”
The injuries continued to be a dominant storyline tonight, however, as the Avs iced just seven of their regular forward corps (not counting deadline acquisition Vladislav Namestnikov). Their “second line” of Compher, Tyson Jost, and Joonas Donskoi are normally guys fighting for ice in the bottom six.
Tonight, they were Colorado’s best line.
Not only did Compher score the game-winning goal after hard work behind the Buffalo net by Donskoi and Jost, but the line was also disruptive throughout the evening. They combined for ten shots on goal, five of which came from the snakebitten Jost.
Officially without a goal since November 30, Jost found himself in trade rumors over the weekend and it seemed to kickstart his game to another level. He’s consistently produced good process but the results weren’t there.
Even tonight, he only registered one assist despite playing key roles in two goals and having a goal of his own called back. It’s tough being him right now but his play still found another level.
“Just how it’s going for him right now,” Johnson said of his young teammate. “I’ve liked his game of late. I think he’s really played well, he’s working hard, he has a good attitude and shows up and does the right things every day. When you do that stuff, usually good things follow. For him, just more of the same and he’s going to get rewarded.”
That perspective permeated the team as Jost wasn’t the only player to step up tonight. In just his fourth NHL game, Kaut scored his first NHL goal and now has a goal and an assist. He’s certainly making a strong case to stay beyond the nine games the Avs have until it’s decision time on his contract.
“He’s looked very good,” Johnson said. “Sometimes guys just need an opportunity and they run away with it. Great to see Kauter step up. I know he was excited for his first goal, especially at home, and happy for those guys. They’re young, hard-working guys that deserve it with a big future in the organization.”
With Jost and Kaut helping to power the offensive engine, Colorado managed to get to the three goal plateau and sweep the season series against the Sabres. While they aren’t one of the league’s premier teams, beating Buffalo still gave Colorado two points in the standings.
They now sit one point ahead of Dallas (with one game in hand) for second place and three points behind St. Lous (with two games in hand). The race for the Central Division also doubles as the race for the number seed out West.
If Colorado can keep pace with those two teams during these injuries, they might be the team to beat come mid-March.
“It’s crazy,” Johnson said. “Talk about some deadline acquisitions when those guys come back. It’s a next man up mentality. You’re seeing Val step up to the first line and playing like a beast. I really liked Josty’s game the last handful of weeks. Comph scored a big goal for us tonight and Donny has played well. It’s not going to be Nate every night so it’s nice to get some of that secondary support and those guys are playing really well. Happy to see them step up and contribute.”
- He slowed down as the game wore on but Martin Kaut was an absolute monster in the first period. He only registered one shot on goal but had five attempts and was arguably Colorado’s best forward in a period where there weren’t very many good ones. He keeps impressing with his solid all-around play and, obviously, the goal in the second period was a great reward for him. Somehow, he lost his stick before going through the fist-bump line and then took the customary bottle of water to the face as he did so. He seems well-liked already and if he keeps playing like he did tonight, he’ll earn that respect quickly enough.
- It was odd to see newcomer Vladislav Namestnikov see exactly zero time on the penalty kill after that being one of the primary selling points in acquiring him at the trade deadline. The Avs have practiced just once, though, so I’ll assume it has more to do with not having time to really teach him some of the nuances of their system and such. Otherwise, I’m not sure why they wouldn’t play him on the one unit he specializes in. He finished with two shots on goal and three hits in 12:17 of ice time, all at even strength.
- Tyson Jost finally got off the crazy train he’s been riding and scored on a tip-in from a Nikita Zadorov shot early in the third period…only to have it waved off because he tipped it with a high stick. While it looked like the correct call to me, it’s indicative of the struggles Jost is living with right now where he plays well and finally cashes a chance, only for it to come back. He had a stronger overall effort tonight and looked pretty good throughout. Jost drew his 18th penalty of the season, tying him with J.T. Compher for fourth on the Avs. I didn’t realize either player had drawn that many but here we are.
- Pavel Francouz gave up two goals tonight, as many as he had given up in his last three starts combined, but also faced a shot volume he did not in California last week. He faced 47 in the two games in SoCal but saw 33 tonight. He once again rose to the occasion and got it done with 31 saves. The longer Grubauer remains out and the more Francouz continues to show out, the more of a conversation it’s going to be when Grubauer returns from injury. Assuming Francouz doesn’t experience a dramatic drop-off, it would be interesting to go back to Grubauer later in the season. Having two goaltenders who were both playing very well is living large in the NHL. Between the two, they’ve only given up more than three goals four times since January 1. Even in those four games, they’ve gone 0-2-2 so it could certainly be worse.
- The offense is definitely feeling the impacts of the injuries but also is regressing off that PDO heater it spent the first three months of the season on. They’ve scored more than three goals just twice since the All-Star break and haven’t done it since the 4-1 win over Ottawa on February 6.