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The Avalanche finally met the moment in a tight win over St. Louis

AJ Haefele Avatar
January 19, 2020

Style. Systems. Regular season success versus postseason success.

Nothing brings these discussions to the forefront of Avalanche hockey quite like matchups against the St. Louis Blues. After the Avs lost both games in St. Louis earlier this year, making it six losses in a row against the Blues, the writing on the wall appeared clear: the Avs were not built for success against the defending champs.

With the Blues leading the division and very likely standing right in any postseason path to the Stanley Cup, that was deemed problematic. Colorado’s skill couldn’t hang with the grit and grind of the Blues.

Following a 5-3 win over the Blues today, however, the season series sits tied at two wins apiece with one more game in Denver left on the regular season schedule.

“Especially knowing this is a team that we’re going to have to go through to reach our goal of winning the Cup, it’s definitely nice to get a couple wins against them,” Matt Nieto said in a relatively subdued postgame locker room. “When we’re doing it right, we usually have success. It’s good to see.”

The success was earned the hard way today in a matinee affair that saw the Blues outshoot Colorado just 24-19. Not only was it low-event, but Colorado had to stare down the barrel of protecting a third-period lead, something it has struggled with mightily in recent weeks.

The message after the second period with Colorado leading 4-2 was clear: Don’t let the Blues climb back into the game.

“Just make sure the third period is the best period of the [day],” Gabe Landeskog said of the intermission discussion. “With a lead, you always want to stay on the gas and kind of play in the offensive zone. We know what it feels like when you are chasing goals and then you have to spend time in your own zone and it’s hard, so didn’t really end up that way. We spent the whole period in our zone, but we found a way to get it done and that’s the most important thing.”

The Avs managed to fend off the Blues, who scored at 7:23 of the third to cut the lead to just one goal. St. Louis pushed hard in the final ten minutes of the game but Colorado played a safe, efficient defensive game that kept the Blues from racking up shots or scoring chances.

“We’ve been talking all week about how it’s just mental in terms of letting up those third period leads,” Cale Makar said. “For us, we just wanted to stay on the attack and at the end of the day, we were chipping a lot of pucks out and they were throwing them back at us. But, I think we played well enough defensively to get the win.”

That feeling was prevalent throughout the Avalanche locker room. The third period wasn’t really what they wanted from themselves but it was good enough today and that’s all that really matters for now.

“It’s huge,” Nieto added. “We’ve been in these spots the last ten games or so and we were finding ways to lose them. To finally gut one out, stick with it and get the win there is nice.”

The final six minutes of the game were intense as the Blues dominated possession but Colorado won just enough battles to keep Philipp Grubauer from being under siege.

“There’s a lot going on,” Nieto said. “Pucks are bouncing everywhere. I thought we did a good job six on five. We kept them on the perimeter for the most part and the shots we did give up Grubi was able to see.

We try not to lay back and play it safe but it’s hard when they’re pushing. You don’t want to be turning pucks over and feeding their offense. I thought we did a good job of that.”

Six on five was just an extension of the penalty kill, a much-maligned unit that came up big today despite allowing the first St. Louis goal late in the first period. A failed clear from Nieto was the main culprit in that goal.

“I take the blame on that first penalty kill not getting the puck out and they capitalized,” Nieto said. “We came back in here and regrouped and were still happy with the things we were doing. Last game and this game, [the penalty kill was] just being more resilient, pressuring harder, getting to spots quicker. It’s hard for a power play to execute and find plays when we’re doing that.”

The game actually turned thanks to a successful Colorado penalty kill early in the second period. With the Blues leading 2-1 and down a man, the PK unit stepped up and turned the game around with a dominant defensive effort. They attacked the puck and spent more time in the Blues’ end than their own, leading to a Blues penalty that prematurely ended the kill.

From there, the Avs climbed back into the game and scored three goals in nine minutes to build the 4-2 lead they would eventually hang on to.

Goals from Tyson Jost, Cale Makar, and Andre Burakovsky put the Avs in the driver’s seat. While there were some shaky moments at the wheel, Colorado held on and moved to 22-1-4 when leading after two periods.

The Avs finish their five-game homestand with another matinee affair on Monday as they welcome in the Detroit Red Wings on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, their final game before the All-Star break and subsequent bye week.

GAME TAKEAWAYS

  • Starting here with Philipp Grubauer. This won’t go down in the stats as a sterling performance or even a Quality Start, but the Avs don’t win this game without him stepping up. You can certainly argue against the first goal against but the next two Grubauer didn’t stand a chance on as the defense in front of him hung him out to dry. What really stood out though was his play early in the second period. Colorado was spinning their wheels and hadn’t found their footing and the Blues had already made it 2-1 and were pressing hard to put Colorado away. Grubauer came up huge and kept the Avs in it and the rest was history. He also locked down the third period when the Avs were playing chip and change hockey. The Blues might have dominated in possession but they struggled to generate both quality and quantity of shots and the third period shot counter ended up 8-8. It wasn’t always pretty but it was effective.
  • That might be the most impressive aspect of today’s win. Colorado played the game the Blues largely wanted to and they walked out with a win. For a team that has had issues winning against their stylistic counterparts, this was something they definitely needed to prove to themselves they could do. It was also a four-point game and while they’re still eight points back of the Blues, that’s obviously a better position than being 12 back. Another aspect is the season series is now tied at two wins apiece with one more game in Denver to go. Because of how the tiebreaker rules are written, Colorado having the extra home game means first game in Pepsi Center essentially gets ‘thrown out’ when calculating tiebreakers. That means to tie the season series with the Blues, the Avs need to win the final game in Pepsi Center in regulation. The Blues are far ahead enough of the Avs that it’s not a major concern right now but just something to keep an eye on.
  • One of the interesting aspects of the Blues-Avalanche matchup is Colorado’s high-end skill is just at a higher level than what St. Louis has. The first two games, the Avs high-end guys were largely neutralized and didn’t do much. In the last two, we’ve seen game-changing moments from Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar, the two highest-skill players on either team. When Colorado gets those contributions, they typically win. To get them today against the Blues, that’s just what the doctor ordered, even with defensive miscues from both players that led to goals against.
  • Just a day after I said on the podcast Ian Cole was Colorado’s most underappreciated player, he adds two more assists. He is up to 22 points on the season. While defense may be his calling card, that he’s produced this kind of offense is impressive and very important for the Avs. The concept of ‘secondary scoring’ beyond the big guns requires contributions from everyone else and getting regular offensive boosts from unexpected players is a testament to the quality of Colorado’s depth. Cole is currently Colorado’s sixth defenseman (at least in terms of usage) and is thriving in that role. He might be more expensive than you’d like for a player in that role but the Avs are in salary cap heaven still so they can easily afford the cost.
  • Andre Burakovsky getting back in the goal-scoring column was certainly something the Avs also needed. As mentioned above, the secondary scoring has to come from all over and Burakovsky hadn’t found the net in a while. He should have two goals on the afternoon as Tyson Jost’s goal actually clipped Burakovsky’s skate but for now, the credit remains with Jost. Regardless, the game-winning goal belongs all to Burakovsky and is the kind of skilled goal he is capable of that makes Colorado so dangerous. Teams tend to relax when MacKinnon & Co. get off the ice but the skill brought by a guy like Burakovsky forces them to be honest. When they make a mistake, Burakovsky can burn a team and he did that again today. He has 14 goals on the year (15 if they change the Jost goal later, which is still possible) and has been a sound investment for the Avs.

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