No Nathan MacKinnon? No problem.
With their superstar sitting out the season opener after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week, the Colorado Avalanche didn’t miss a beat, using a scintillating surge in the first period to set up a 4-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday at Ball Arena.
It was the defensive corps that picked up the slack, as three different blueliners either scored or set up three first-period goals in the span of 5:08 to set the tone for the victory. Gabriel Landeskog and Bowen Byram each notched a goal and an assist to give Colorado the start it was looking for.
Here are three takeaways from Wednesday’s win:
Byram Arrives for Avalanche
It came a little later than most expected, but Byram’s offensive talent was on full display in a spectacular debut for the Avalanche in the season opener. The second-year defenseman notched his first NHL goal in the first period and added an assist in the second to lead Colorado.
The goal was the third of Colorado’s three tallies in roughly a five-minute span in the first period, and it was a beauty. Capping off a break started by Landeskog, Byram buried a sharp wrister from the left circle over Chicago goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s glove hand. Byram added an assist in the second period on Nazem Kadri’s first of the season.
After a great World Juniors in 2020, there was a lot of excitement when Byram came up to the Avalanche as a 19-year-old last season. He was slowed a bit by injuries and managed just two points in only 19 games. Byram was shut down for the season after March 25, facing issues with a concussion.
The Avalanche needed an offensive boost with MacKinnon sidelined, but few thought it would come from the defensive corps. On the four goals scored by the Avalanche on Wednesday, defensemen scored two and had two assists. On top of being his first NHL goal, Byram’s tally proved to be the game-winner.
Kuemper Shines in Avs Debut
Replacing a Vezina Trophy finalist is never an easy task. Darcy Kuemper didn’t seem to mind at all. The 31-year-old goaltender stopped 32 shots on Wednesday, including 24 over the final two periods. It was his first start for the Avalanche after spending the first 10 years of his career with three different teams – including the last four with the Arizona Coyotes.
Kuemper’s biggest saves came in the second period. After the furious first period, Colorado came out in the second just going through the motions. Chicago was putting pressure on, but Kuemper made a big save on a Kirby Dach breakaway and stopped another wide-open chance for Dach a few minutes later. Just 27 seconds after the second save on Dach, Colorado’s lead widened to 4-1 on Kadri’s goal.
Kuemper made 13 saves in that pivotal second period. The Avalanche entered the frame with a 3-1 lead, and despite getting outplayed for the vast majority of the period, they wound up going into the final period with a 4-1 advantage. He stopped 11 shots in the third period, despite giving up a goal from Connor Murphy late in the period. He held firm to close out the period, stopping three shots during a six-on-four power play in the final few minutes.
The Avalanche brought in Kuemper on the same day that Philipp Grubauer left Colorado in free agency for the expansion Seattle Kraken this summer. Grubauer took third in the Vezina voting last season after tying for the NHL lead in shutouts and finishing in the top seven of both goals-against average and save percentage.
Johnson Surprises By Delivering On Offense
Defenseman Jack Johnson was the last addition to the Avalanche roster, getting signed just three days before the season opener. He needed less time to make an impact, and it was in the unlikeliest of places – on offense. Johnson scored the first goal of the season for Colorado, netting a breakaway – of all things – after a great feed from J.T. Compher to set it up.
Johnson’s offensive game will never be confused with guys like Cale Makar. Through 15 NHL seasons, Johnson has scored just 72 goals and has never scored more than 42 points in a season – and that was more than a decade ago. Conversely, Makar piled up 94 points through his first two seasons, including 50 in a rookie campaign that earned him the Calder Trophy. But the Avalanche will certainly take anything they can get offensively from Johnson, especially on a night with MacKinnon scratched.
The Avalanche are the fifth team Johnson has played for as he enters his 16th NHL season. He only played in 13 games last season with the New York Rangers, and many thought his career might be over until the Avs signed him on a tryout contract. He was paired with fellow veteran Ryan Murray on the third defensive pairing Wednesday.
Johnson only scored one goal with the Rangers last season. He also didn’t score a goal in his final 24 games of the 2019-20 campaign, including the playoffs, when playing with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Those slumps were all erased Wednesday, as Johnson’s opening tally set off a three-goal burst over the next 5:08 that got the Avs rolling. Colorado hopes to stretch Wednesday’s hot start into an early winning streak when they host the St. Louis Blues on Saturday.
Lifelong storyteller and experienced hockey reporter that has covered everything from major juniors to the NHL. Worked for various newspapers across Minnesota and North Dakota, and now covering the Colorado Avalanche for THW.