Colorado Avalanche Weekly: The Contenders Have Arrived

The beginning of March saw the Colorado Avalanche become possession monsters, thoroughly out chancing their opponents on a game-to-game basis. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t a bumpy ride for the club. They lost to the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, and Arizona Coyotes all within two weeks’ time, enough negative results to fluster some onlookers.

The Avalanche, it would appear, were not flustered. They’ve now earned points in eight contests in a row, including seven wins in a row, which came in a convincing fashion, one akin to the expectations the team garnered during the previous offseason. Their star players have started to heat up, with Mikko Rantanen, in particular, standing out with six goals and five assists in his last six games. He now has 19 goals on the season, third in the NHL and the most of anyone outside the defense-optional Canadian Division. Nathan MacKinnon has been electric during his seven-game point streak, and Gabriel Landeskog has rounded out the trio with 12 points during the team’s hot run.

The Avs are as healthy as they’ve been all year, welcoming back Cale Makar and Bowen Byram to their defensive unit. Makar’s weeks-long absence lost him ground in the race for the Norris Trophy, but he has come back as strong as ever to begin his ascent back into contention. Byram was solid in his return as well, continuing to be strong defensively as his offensive game develops. Unfortunately, he once again missed time in the most recent game due to injury. Nothing can ever go *just* right for Colorado.

Cale Makar Colorado Avalanche
Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Goaltender Philipp Grubauer has played his way into the Vezina trophy conversation, now holding 19 wins to his name (second-most in the NHL), a .930 save percentage (tied for third amongst starters), and five shutouts (the most in the league). He’s having the best season of his NHL career, just in time to sign a new contract this summer. His ascension has been necessary for Colorado, who continued their struggles with the backup position even after acquiring Jonas Johansson from the Buffalo Sabres. He gave up four goals and three shootout conversions to the offensively-suspect Coyotes on Tuesday night to halt the Avs’ win streak.

But almost everyone on the roster is clicking for Colorado, and now, as a fun bonus, the goals are actually going in. Thus, the Avalanche cruised to four blowout wins this week, outscoring their opponents 28-10 and outshooting them 207-130 (or 206-130, depending on who you ask). Here’s how it went down:

Avalanche Bury Ducks After Slow Start

Four of the six goals scored against the Avalanche this week came in the first period of the first game. The Ducks scored four goals on seven shots against Hunter Miska, chasing him to the bench in exchange for Grubauer. Miska’s season with the Avalanche has had more downs than ups, but it’s difficult to blame him as he should not have been expected to be Colorado’s backup. He’s a quality AHL starter who was an impactful member of the Colorado Eagles last year.

The amount of hate he received online from Avalanche fans after this game caused him to delete his Twitter, which is just a pathetic showing from the Colorado fanbase. Hockey players are human beings, and Miska did all he could in a role above his comfort level. Be good to each other, after all, it’s just a game.

Miska didn’t even cost Colorado the game. Going into the second frame down 4-2, the Avs roared back with six straight tallies to win 8-4. The second line was a dominant force, as Nazem Kadri collected two goals and an assist, Andre Burakovsky found the back of the net and had an assist, and Brandon Saad had a goal and an assist. MacKinnon rifled the game-winner past Ryan Miller early in the third, and Sam Girard essentially put the game out of reach with a goal that went off a Ducks defenseman a couple of minutes later. It was the second time this season the Avs put eight goals up on the board, and the scoring barrage was just getting started.

Colorado Earns Dominant Wins Over the Minnesota Wild

Over a two-game span, the Avalanche outshot the Minnesota Wild 2:1 and outscored them 11-1. The Wild came in hot and ahead of them by a point in the standings. They have been a great storyline to start the year, rising above expectations to compete at the top of the West. But over a two-game stretch in Denver, they shriveled away as the Avalanche skated circles around them.

This isn’t hyperbolic, either, a finally healthy Avalanche squad could simply do no wrong, as goals poured in from every angle. It was a cathartic conclusion to a month of shots seemingly rebelling against the burgundy and blue, and the Wild were simply an unfortunate victim.

The Wild are a better team than whatever showed up in these two contests, just as the Avalanche aren’t as good as the supernova that occurred at Ball Arena during those games. But everything aligned as it did, and Colorado was able to authoritatively move ahead in the standings and begin to chase down the Vegas Golden Knights.

The top line came in waves; Rantanen scored three times and added two assists, MacKinnon had a goal and five assists, Landeskog collected two goals and four assists. Grubauer allowed one goal on 51 shots. Every defenseman except for Byram tallied at least a point. Tyson Jost, Joonas Donskoi, and Valeri Nichushkin all scored. For the first time all year, the Avalanche played to their full potential.

Avs Take 3 of 4 Points in the Desert

The shots, goals, and winning continued a couple of nights later, this time in Gila River Arena. The Avalanche clashed with the Coyotes for the fifth time this year and collected their fourth win from those meetings. After a tepid start for both clubs, Pierre Edouard Bellemare beat a goalie for the first time all year, preceding a quick strike a few minutes later towards the end of the first.

Kadri’s 10th of the year gave the Avalanche a 3-0 lead midway through the game, a score that would remain until Oliver Ekman Larsson’s bomb from the top of the left circle deep into the third period broke Grubauer’s 157:38 minute-long shutout streak. That was as close as the Coyotes would get, as Jost (perhaps the most cursed man in hockey) ripped a shot that barely tipped off of Donskoi into the empty net. Colorado would make it 5-1 with 11 seconds left, this time coming from Jost purposely hitting Donskoi with a cross-ice pass that led to an easy one-timer.

One night later, Johansson made his debut for the Avalanche against the same Coyotes. It began, uh, poorly, as two of the first three Arizona shots got past the Swede. Colorado overcame the early deficit, however, tying the game 2-2 from Landeskog and Rantanen goals. MacKinnon got the lone tally of the second, rifling the puck past Adin Hill in the dying seconds. A Nichushkin deflection briefly made it 4-2, but the lead faded in just a matter of minutes as Lawson Crouse and Phil Kessel found ways around Johansson.

A power play in overtime almost kept the win streak alive for the Avs, but Hill played out of his mind to keep the game even. The Coyotes scored thrice in the shootout, and that was all she wrote.

Despite the result, there were still plenty of positives to take from the contest. The top line stayed hot, and Johansson recovered well after a horrendous start to his Avs career. Every night is not going to go perfectly, something that is a little harder to remember after the last week of play.

Valeri Nichushkin Colorado Avalanche
Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Colorado still earned a point and sits just a win behind Vegas in the standings for the top of the Division. It just so happens the Golden Knights are coming to Denver, also on a hot streak. The last couple of weeks have been setting the stage for the upcoming two-game series, one that will serve as a litmus test for both clubs with Stanley Cup aspirations. The biggest stretch of the season is about to begin. Time to see what the Avs are made of.

Upcoming schedule:

3/25, vs. Vegas Golden Knights at 9PM EST

3/27, vs. Vegas Golden Knights at 3PM EST

3/29, vs. Anaheim Ducks at 9PM EST

3/31, vs. Arizona Coyotes at 9:30PM EST

Check out all of the Hockey Writers Avalanche content, from Kerry Collins, Ben Rossi, Ilyas Hussein, and myself.


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