What a difference 24 hours makes. The Colorado Avalanche quickly put to bed any ill-feeling from their 8-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night, with a 4-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday.
Prior to the game, much of the talk surrounded the decision to play Jonas Johansson in goal after conceding eight in Toronto, a strange one, to say the least. It seemed the Avalanche were leaving Johansson in goal to play Justus Annunen on Thursday, who arrived with the team on the back of winning the American Hockey League (AHL) goalie of the month award.
It was a big call from coach Jared Bednar to go back in with Johansson, but the Avs took two points from this one, and that is all that matters.
Here are the main takeaways from the game.
Avalanche Defense Supports Johansson
This game cannot have been easy for Johansson from a mental point of view. However, he did receive something in Montreal that was missing in Toronto, and that was help from the defense in front of him.
The Canadiens were limited to just 20 shots in the game, and just four of those came in the first period. If the plan was to play in a way to allow Johansson to grow into the game and find his feet again, it certainly worked well.
There is no one on the Canadiens roster that has the scoring potential of someone like Auston Matthews, who the Avalanche faced a day earlier, so this was a much easier game to manage. Having said that, their gap control, work rate in the defensive zone, and puck-moving out of the zone were all far better than on Wednesday.
Valeri Nichushkin Continues Elite Level of Play
It is probable that Val Nichushkin slows down at some point this season after an incredibly hot start, but for now, let’s enjoy the ride. After being elevated to a second-line role, the big Russian has not looked back at all.
Not only is Nichushkin contributing on the scoreboard with 11 points from 11 games so far, but he is maintaining his excellent defensive numbers from last season. He has come a long way since the Avs offered him a one-year deal back in 2019-20.
Nichushkin was on the ice for 26 Avalanche chances, compared to just eight for Montreal, across all situations, including when penalty killing. In terms of shots on goal, the Avalanche had 13 shots when he was on the ice, with Montreal having just four. The big one is high danger chances, this was 5-0 to the Avs when Nichushkin was playing.
We have seen this level of shutdown play from him before, especially last season, but now we are seeing him do that and put points on the board, making him a very valuable player right now. This is a contract year for Nichushkin, and given his current play, he could well price himself out of staying in Colorado if this continues for much longer.
Avalanche’s Offering High Energy
With Nathan MacKinnon back in the forward group, the Avs look a lot more balanced and their depth is in a much better place. In this game, we saw a very energetic performance from a third line that looks incredibly difficult to play against.
Logan O’Connor is back down on this line after covering for MacKinnon, alongside Alex Newhook, who continues to look good, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who has settled in well after being picked up off waivers from Philadelphia. All three are incredibly difficult to play against and have the ability to score, and in this game, both O’Connor and Newhook had solid chances to put the puck in the back of the net.
Given that this line includes a newly acquired player and a rookie that has recently been brought up from the minors, there is still plenty to work on. However, if these three stick together for the next month, given how hard they all are to play against individually, they should provide some fun and offer resistance against anyone in the league as we head into 2022.
The Avalanche have played two of their five games on this road trip. Up next, they face Ottawa on Saturday before rounding off the trip against the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers next week.
Craig Jones is a freelance NHL writer from the UK, covering the Colorado Avalanche. Watching the NHL from afar, Craig has followed the Avs for more than two decades, and wrote about them for almost one. To get the UK perspective of the NHL and everything Colorado, follow Craig on Twitter @craigjones29.