The Colorado Avalanche had a chance to tie the Dallas Stars in points, and with a game in hand, they would have become the Central Division leader.
Cale Makar was a participant in the optional morning skate but would stay out as a precaution. Jared Bednar reported he was doing “much better” and would be reevaluated for Friday’s contest. Evan Rodrigues, who entered concussion protocol following a hit in the Chicago game, was also present in a no-contact jersey.
In the opening minutes, Colorado struggled to settle the puck and allowed a few dangerous chances. The game rested on a knife’s edge throughout the first period.
The shots were close in total and quality, but Pittsburgh’s appeared just a bit more threatening. Truthfully, the Avs looked like they could have had the clear edge in this frame, but they continued to mishandle the puck in the offensive zone, over-passing a bit, and it limited their total chances.
In the final five minutes, Colorado started to gather their footing a bit. Nathan MacKinnon wired a shot off the crossbar and the ping rang throughout the arena. MacKinnon’s line with Denis Malgin and Mikko Rantanen created the best scoring chances, and Lars Eller’s line with Andrew Cogliano and Logan O’Connor appeared the most comfortable clearing the zone and transitioning on the rush attack.
Denis Malgin and Lars Eller had two dangerous chances of their own.
With 1:44 left in the frame, Colorado earned the first powerplay chance. Bryan Rust went off for hooking and the Avs got to work on a chance that would be split with the second period.
Bo Byram ran the top unit in Makar’s absence, and Lars Eller came in on the second unit to balance out Evan Rodrigues’ absence. Sort of predictably, the first part of the powerplay struggled to get things going with just a blocked shot to their name. They would start the second period with the man-advantage.
Both Alexandar Georgiev and Pittsburgh’s Tristan Jarry looked solid.
Colorado’s man-advantage came and went. A minute into the period, Val Nichushkin tried to apply pressure on the forecheck, but Pierre-Olivier Joseph reset and dumped the puck out. Jake Guentzel snagged it midair and passed up ice to Sidney Crosby. Crosby entered the zone, dangled Sam Girard, and backhanded the puck past Georgiev.
At 2:50, Kurtis MacDermid took a cross-checking penalty. It was quickly followed by a holding penalty from Andrew Cogliano, so the Avs played 5-on-3.
The puck was flying around errantly, but Evgeni Malkin settled it from the top of the right circle. He sent a shot toward the net and Guentzel tipped it. Georgiev made the initial save, but Guentzel batted in his own rebound mid-air.
At 11:55, Georgiev gloved down Mark Friedman’s point-blank chance from the circle – it was immediately following a wicked wrist shot from Jason Zucker. In spite of the score, he continued to come up with important saves especially given the shot disparity.
Past the midway point, Alex Newhook engaged Kris Letang on the forecheck and forced a turnover. Val Nichushkin collected it from the back of the net and swung around and then left the puck for J.T. Compher streaking toward the top of the crease to knock it home. Compher’s goal cut the lead in half.
About a minute later, Logan O’Connor was called for tripping. On the subsequent powerplay, the Penguins ran the penalty kill ragged. Bo Byram and Sam Girard were working hard to engage their men, but the Pens worked harder. Byram nearly got a stick on Byran Rust’s pass to Jeff Carter left of the crease, but he was able to bank it in to make it 3-1.
At 15:13, Darren Helm tied up Sidney Crosby along the boards and Crosby took issue with it. The two grabbed at each other on the ice and were given matching penalties for roughing. Helm walked away with an extra minor for holding.
Colorado endured the kill this time and held Pittsburgh to two shots on net. With a minute left in the period, Byram drew a holding call and the Avs would split their powerplay between periods again.
The Penguins had the clear advantage in this frame. Through two periods, the Avs did not start the first half on the right foot. Game management disrupted regular game play, and the Avs penalty kill was not having a good night with two goals allowed on four chances. The Pens climbed ahead in the shots and possession battle.
Three minutes in, with the remainder of the powerplay at its start, the Avs failed to generate a shot on net. Meanwhile, the Pens managed five.
At 9:12, Mikko Rantanen was tripped up by Josh Archibald and Colorado earned another powerplay chance. The Avs established the zone and moved the puck around the perimeter. In a tic-tac-toe play, MacKinnon moved to Compher who passed to Devon Toews at the right circle. Toews wristed it in past Tristan Jarry.
Moments later, the villain of the hour struck again. At 12:51, Pittsburgh cycled the puck in Colorado’s end and Brian Dumoulin sent a shot toward the net. Jeff Carter got inside Lars Eller and tipped it with his stick blade.
With about four minutes remaining, Georgiev left the net to give the Avs an extra skater. The Avs managed four shots on net, but Bryan Rust sailed a puck into the empty net to make it 5-2.
Colorado would have to come for Dallas’ division lead another night.
Avs interrupted: The Avs were not the beneficiaries of regular gameplay. They lose the special teams battle which ultimately costs them for a few reasons. To start, two of their three powerplay chances are split between the end and start of a new period. This scenario is notoriously difficult to score on given the break in momentum. Also considering the Avs were not running their standard powerplay units which usually include Artturi Lehkonen and Evan Rodrigues, it was a difficult task. They managed, however, to keep some of the power play magic alive once they finally had an uninterrupted chance in the third period.
Similarly, Jared Bednar called out the number of penalties in the second period.
“We had four straight penalty kills in the second period. Tough to get your game going and keep shots off the board. That’s the difference in the hockey game,” said Bednar.
“Second period, we’re getting called for penalties. No question, we took some of them and spent too much time in the box. We fight as hard as we can in the third, but the game was won and lost in the second period.”
The Avs have used their second periods as important stepping stones to build off from their first periods lately – often when they’ve allowed a goal against early into the game. They didn’t have that in the bag tonight, and they didn’t have a backup plan at the ready.
They don’t allow a goal in the first, but an early goal in the second would haunt them. Without the benefit of regular gameplay to issue a response, they had to contend with staying out of the box and killing penalties. It was stifling, and it meant leaving points on the table. They must intend to re-collect.
Jared Bednar’s thoughts on the game overall: “Loved our first period. I thought we should have been up one or two after the first. We outchanced them and we were dangerous. We’re getting in and out of our zone and we were pretty good on the rush attack.
I didn’t like the way we got stubborn in the second period, and moving forward a little bit in the third period, with the puck. They did a nice job standing their line on our rush attack and their rush coverage. It looked like we wanted to keep trying to pick our way through.
If you look at our first goal we got, we just laid it in and went to work on the forecheck: turned the puck over, bang, bang, it was in the back of the net, but we didn’t do it enough.
I felt like we got a little bit stubborn. You got to trust their guy’s skill and their ability to make plays off the rush. But when it’s not working, I thought we could have turned the page a little bit earlier to get on the attack, using their legs on the forecheck and trying to get some o-zone time.”
Jared Bednar on leaving points on the table in their chase for the Division title: “It’s a big moment for our team: we have a chance to go 1st in the Division. We knew they were going to play with urgency: 12 games left, sitting out of the spot by 1 point, but I didn’t feel like there’s any reason why we couldn’t either.
There’s advantages to finishing first, and that’s what we’re trying to track down. It’s an opportunity for us tonight. We didn’t get it done. Hopefully, we get another one.”