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The Colorado Avalanche played their last road game before the holiday break against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Hawks have had a tough season.
They were at the bottom of the league with a paltry 19 points before the Avs handed them two more for free tonight.
The Hawks entered tonight down defensemen Seth Jones, Kevin Korchinski, and Alex Vlasic, and the forward core took a beating when they lost Taylor Hall and Corey Perry earlier this season.
On the heels of a four game losing streak, the Blackhawks had everything to gain. For the Avs, a sense of pride was on the line.
Colorado wasn’t without its own challenges: Cale Makar and Andrew Cogliano did not make the trip to prioritize their rest.
Even with the slightly battered lineup, the remaining talent outside of Val Nichushkin couldn’t keep the Avs in the win column. Colorado lost 3-2.
The first period was strong.
An early mistake wasn’t something they couldn’t overcome, but it did amount to a costly one in the end.
About seven minutes in, the Avs held Chicago to just one shot on net.
Bowen Byram picked the puck off Ryan Donato in the defensive zone with a smart stick play on the backcheck, but Connor Bedard swooped in like a bird of prey to snatch the puck away from him.
Bedard made the pass to Nikita Zaitsev at the right-circle, and Zaitsev’s rebound dribbled out front. Ryan Donato was at the post to knock it in.
The Avs received two back to back penalties and seized the opportunity.
On the first one, the Avs cycled the puck. Nathan MacKinnon fed Jonathan Drouin the puck and settled it behind the goal line. Drouin made a nice pass quickly to Nichushkin at the netfront.
Near the end of their next man-advantage, Sam Malinski fired a slap shot from the left-circle that went wide and Rantanen collected the loose puck at the half wall. He sent it to the crease and Nichushkin took it forehand-backhand into the net.
A little over a minute later, Filip Roos made an insane stretch pass. Ryan Donato caught it in the neutral zone and angled it up ice to Bedard who was ready for it. Also there to challenge Donato along with Toews came Jack Johnson from the far side.
Not only did Johnson leave his post, but he also tangled with Donato leaving Drouin alone to defend against Bedard by himself. Bedard burst toward the offensive blueline and beat Devon Toews on entry. Bedard made the pass behind Drouin’s back to Lukas Reichel in the slot and Reichel wristed it past Alexandar Georgiev.
On just the third shot of Chicago’s game, they were tied with the Avs who led the shots battle 11-3.
The Hawks gained momentum from this and finished the period with eight shots to Colorado’s twelve. The Avs still had the stronger period and created nine high-danger chances to the Blackhawks’ two.
The second period was uneventful in a problematic way. Despite getting a powerplay opportunity, the Avs didn’t create very much.
Two penalties of their own put them on the kill twice, and even though it was successful, their inability to convert allowed Chicago space to start feeling confident in their game.
The Blackhawks won the possession battle inside this frame and gained some ground in the shots battle to bring it much closer. The Avs didn’t get very dangerous in the second period, and the Hawks started to feel themselves.
In the third period, officiating officially crept into the storyline of this game. What should ordinarily act as a background to the framework of a game became a part of its plot.
Miles Wood was called for holding the stick at 7:58. It was a borderline call – to which there were already a few that affected both sides in this contest – but the difference was: it was a tied game with half a period left to go.
On the subsequent kill, Zaitsev made the breakout pass to Bedard. The Hawks made the entry, and found Zaitsev coming down the slot. Nick Foligno got below Toews and Josh Manson at the left-circle. Foligno sent a pass to the netfront for Tyler Johnson to angle in.
When Wood exited the box, his frustration with the refs earned him a two minute minor and game misconduct for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The Avs made a deep push to come back in this game, but there was very little time left to do it.
With thirty-four seconds left on the clock, a skirmish after the whistle penalized the Avs despite everyone’s involvement. It started with a cross-check to Drouin from Connor Murphy during the play. Drouin retaliated after the whistle and several players stepped in.
Wood went off for roughing and Isaak Phillips and Ryan Johasen went off for misconducts.
The clock ran down and the Avs couldn’t find the necessary finishing touch.
They held the Hawks to just three shots in the final period and outshot them 37-22 in the end. High-danger chances favored the Avs 18-8.
The apathy inside the second period atop some costly mistakes early was too much to overcome even in spite of a big push in the third period.
Val Nichushkin’s two goal night was individually valiant. He has 15 goals in 30 games and 29 points on the season. Nichushkin led the team in high-danger chances with eight. He has eight points in the last five games to complement Nathan MacKinnon’s now 16 game point streak.
Nichushkin is tied with Brock Boeser for the NHL-lead for most powerplay goals at nine and also reached his 250th point with two goals tonight.
The lack of finish from other known contributors proved to be a problem. Mikko Rantanen led the team with seven shots on net and six additional attempts missed or blocked.
Rantanen accounted for just two high-danger chances.
The d-corps struggled without Cale Makar and Alexandar Georgiev probably wished he could have one of those goals back.
It was a disappointing game to drop because it was never out of reach and it never should have been.
The Avs are better than what they showed tonight. They have a softer schedule leading into the holiday break. They have to respect the competition moving forward because it doesn’t get easier past December.
With the next two games at home, and a good home record to support them, Colorado needs the morale boost, but they’ll have to earn it. There are no shortcuts for hard work.
They’re still a 19-11-2 team hovering at second in the Central Division – it’s just not the Avalanche hockey we know they’re capable of.