The Colorado Avalanche handed the Florida Panthers only their fifth loss in 27 games this season, with a 3-2 victory Sunday night at Ball Arena in Denver. It was Colorado’s fourth straight win and the 12th in their last 15 games. They are currently in fourth place in the hotly contested Central Division, only five points out of the top spot.
The two teams played a high octane, physical, and remarkably even contest that had the feeling of a playoff game. Florida had the edge in shots on goal (31-26), and faceoffs won (54% to 46%), while Colorado outhit the Panthers (22 to 18) and blocked more shots (17-11).
The Panthers brought all they could in the final two minutes in an attempt to tie the game but still came up short. Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson made a highlight-reel save with 12 seconds left in the contest when he swept the puck from the crease behind Colorado goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who had been knocked to the ice. Johnson had blocked a shot in the right faceoff circle only seconds earlier.
Here are three takeaways from the game.
Burakovsky’s First Hat Trick
Avalanche forward Andre Burakovsky recorded his first career hat trick, scoring all three of Colorado’s goals. The Klagenfurt, Austria native, has five goals in the last two games, cementing his reputation as a streaky player. In the 2019-20 season, his first year in Colorado, Burakovsky had goal-scoring droughts of eight and 11 games and yet also scored five goals in a three-game stretch in mid-November. Before Saturday’s win over the Detroit Red Wings, in which he scored two goals, Burakovsky had only one goal and four assists in the previous nine games.
The highlight of the evening was Burakvosky’s third goal, which broke a 2-2 tie and proved to be the game-winner. Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon received a pass from right wing Mikko Rantanen at the red line, gained the zone, and left a drop pass for Burakovsky, who put a strong wrist shot past Florida’s goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky. MacKinnon notched an assist on two of the three goals, and Rantanen had helpers on all three.
With the Avalanche’s two points leaders — second-line center Nazem Kadri and captain Gabriel Landeskog — both sidelined with injuries, the team needed other players to step up, and Burakovsky answered that call.
Kuemper Makes Himself Big in the Net
Kuemper stopped 29 of the 31 shots he faced. He shined the brightest when his team was short-handed, stopping nine of 10 when Florida had the man advantage, including several shots made from the top of the crease.
It was Kuemper’s third game back after an injury, and he looked sharp from the moment the puck dropped. He made one timely save after another, earning the Third Star of the Game (behind number one star Burakovsky and number two star Rantanen). The improved goaltending over the last three games has been sorely needed and is paying dividends. With the win, Kuemper’s record improves to 12-5-0.
It’s Time to Get Head Shots Out of Hockey
Three players would leave the ice with injuries during the game. In the first period, Avalanche defenseman Jack Johnson took a puck to the face. He would return in the second period with several stitches on the right side of his mouth. Also, in the first period, Panthers’ right wing Patric Hornqvist took an accidental skate blade to the abdomen; he dropped his stick on the ice and skated immediately to the bench, disappearing down the tunnel to the locker room. He would also return in the second period.
Much more serious was the hit Florida’s left wing, Ryan Lomberg, put on Avalanche defenseman Jacob MacDonald. Similar to the two controversial hits last week from New York Rangers’ defenseman Jacob Trouba (one on MacKinnon and one on Chicago Blackhawks forward Jujhar Khaira), Lomberg led with his shoulder, connecting with MacDonald’s chest and head simultaneously. MacDonald appeared to have passed out before he hit the ice. He was taken from the rink on a stretcher. It was reported later that he was conscious and seemed to have full mobility, which was welcome news for the team and its fans.
Lomberg’s hit was deemed a legal hit, which begs the question as to whether it’s time for the NHL to rethink its rules. As long as a player is making contact with another part of the body, incidental contact to the head is allowed. International hockey rules are somewhat stricter than those in the NHL but still allow for incidental contact to the head. The NHL should consider amending its rules to make any contact with the head illegal. Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden, among others, has been calling for an end to head shots for more than a decade.
While some fans will argue such a rule change would hurt the flow of the game and remove some of the physical play that makes ice hockey such an exciting sport to watch, I don’t buy it. The NHL has been slowly tightening rules over the last several decades to protect players, and the result has been a faster, more exciting brand of hockey. In fact, the increased speed of the game is part of what necessitates a rule change now.
During last night’s game broadcast, Altitude Sports announcer Mark Rycroft referred to Panthers’ head coach Andrew Brunette (a former Avalanche player) as “the last bad-skating hockey player in the NHL.” It was said partly in jest and partly to make the point that Brunette brought value to the team in myriad other ways, but it underscored a truth; that skill and speed in the league today are fundamentally different than they were two decades ago. Simply put, the game is faster. The rules need to catch up with the changing nature of hockey, and it’s time for head shots to go.
Games Notes and Up Next for Colorado
Coach Jared Bednar tallied his 200th win as the Avalanche head coach, the most in Colorado history and second all-time for the franchise. MacKinnon extended his current point streak to seven consecutive games, and Rantanen extended his to four games.
The Avalanche are back in action Tuesday night when they welcome the New York Rangers to Ball Arena. Colorado defeated New York 7-3 last Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.