Make no mistake. The Colorado Avalanche sent a message to the NHL with their road win against the Nashville Predators on Tuesday night: this is not the old Avalanche team.
The Avalanche Fell Short in Big Moments
Over the past decade, the Avalanche have been able to put together a couple of seasons where they were able to squeak into the playoffs or at least be average, excluding the disastrous 48-point season. But they never really garnered much attention or earned much respect, as they tended to wilt when the big matchups happened. Sometimes, key injuries knocked them out. Other times, the team fell flat.
Last year, as the Avalanche were vying for a playoff spot, they went on a disastrous California road trip where they lost three straight games. That poor road performance left their postseason dreams hanging by a thread and they didn’t secure a playoff berth until they defeated the St. Louis Blues in the final game of the regular season. It was typical of Avalanche, showing their winning attitude at the last possible minute, with no one knowing if the team dig themselves out of their hole.
Not on Tuesday night. Tuesday night, the Avalanche faithful were treated to something new. Colorado rose to the occasion and fought hard to beat the Predators in their house. It was the kind of game the Avalanche would have lost in the past.
The Avalanche went into Smashville facing a Predators team that had beaten Colorado in 11 consecutive regular-season contests. Their six-game playoff series last season proved to be more of an even matchup than expected. Yet, the Predators prevailed in the end, fulfilling most sports writers’ predictions.
The Avalanche got a pat on the head and a ‘better luck next time’ for their efforts with many thinking it would be another couple of years before they returned to the postseason. It had been the pattern before so there was no reason to think differently. Except this is not the old Avalanche team, nor the old Avalanche organization. Colorado had bigger goals in mind and everyone worked hard over the past couple of seasons to chart a new course.
Colorado Headed to Nashville
The Avalanche entered Bridgestone Arena Tuesday night faced with a daunting task. The Predators sat atop of the Central Division, the Western Conference and the NHL standings heading into the matchup. They had only lost three home games all season and had already defeated Colorado nearly three weeks earlier by a score of 4-1 at the Pepsi Center. They also boasted a 13-0-0 record when scoring first this season.
Before last night the Nashville Predators were 13-0 when scoring first. Last season when scoring first the Preds were 41-4-6. I don't know how many of those 4 regulation losses were at home but I'm guessing zero. Avs did something unique last night. Avs are for real.
— Dario (@DarioinDenver) November 28, 2018
The Avalanche went into the contest trailing the Predators by five points and they were on a four-game win streak and a seven-game point streak. They were underdogs, but they were underdogs who were building confidence. Still, losing 11 straight regular season games is a hard record to overlook. The Avalanche hadn’t beaten the Predators in the regular season since the 2015-16 season.
The Predators drew first blood, feeding the fire of their 13-game win streak when they scored first. The Avalanche answered two minutes later with Nathan MacKinnon notching a power play goal. Nashville outshot the Avalanche 10-6 with Pekka Rinne looking every inch the Finnish star.
But something shifted in the second period. The Avalanche were flying down the ice throwing pucks at the net when Ian Cole appeared to score to put Colorado up, but the referees ruled it a no-goal due to a high stick while missing the stick that hit Gabriel Bourque’s face.
MacKinnon answered the bell just a few minutes later to put the Avalanche up 2-1 off some fancy work from Mikko Rantanen and Sam Girard. Kevin Fiala responded just a few minutes later to tie the game. It started to look like one of those games when the Avalanche play well but the breaks don’t go in their favor, especially when J.T. Compher got called for a penalty as time ran out of the second period, sending the Avalanche to start the third period short-handed.
The Avalanche began the third period on the penalty kill with the Predators putting on the pressure. But goaltender Semyon Varlamov stood tall and Colorado escaped their short-handed situation without giving up a goal. Less than two minutes later, the Avalanche went on the power play.
While the first power play unit couldn’t get the puck past Rinne, the second unit proved to be equally dangerous. Tyson Jost scored off some dirty work by Compher to put the Avalanche up 3-2 with almost 15 minutes remaining.
Despite a flurry of shots by Nashville (20 shots for the period), Varlamov rose to the challenge, keeping the Predators out of the net and securing a .947 save rate, having allowed only two goals on 38 total shots.
The Avalanche won in Nashville.
Why Winning in Nashville Mattered
On the face of it, winning against the Predators is nice but not necessarily a big deal. Except for a few key things: In the past the Avalanche had struggled in big games against successful teams. Even if they played well, as things went against them they almost seemed to invent new ways to lose. Not this game.
The team’s stars rose to the occasion. MacKinnon and Rantanen had big games, both earning two points. Gabriel Landeskog did not earn a point but was excellent disrupting the Predator’s defense and creating havoc around the net. Varlamov had an excellent night after a slow start and defenseman Sam Girard, acquired from the Predators last November in a trade, helped set up both of MacKinnon’s goals with some slick puck work in the Avalanche’s zone to feed the forward attack.
The Avalanche’s big names played well, but they were not alone. Forward Matt Calvert nearly scored while Bourque had his goal reversed for a high stick. The penalty kill units shut down three Predator’s power-play chances, allowing only one shot on goal over those six minutes. The winning goal was scored by the second power unit. Both forwards and defensemen blocked shots and leveled key hits. It was a great team effort.
The team didn’t wilt in the face of adversity. When Cole’s goal was disallowed, the Avalanche didn’t allow the ruling to deflate them. In fact, they appeared to turn that into motivation to press even harder. Not even four minutes passed from the disallowed goal to when MacKinnon scored his second goal. The Avalanche also played without one of their top four defensemen – Tyson Barrie.
Coach Bednar says Avs D Tyson Barrie will not play tonight at Nashville, injury. Barberio in, Bourque in, Andrighetto in. Dries and Kamanev will get the night off. pic.twitter.com/zdk4MdgryE
— Marc Moser TV (@RadioMoser) November 27, 2018
In the past, this could have been a problem. Instead, Nikita Zadorov stepped up to fill the void and played over 20 minutes of solid hockey. Meanwhile, Mark Barberio came in off the bench to fill in on the third pairing.
The New Attitude Avalanche
During the post-game interview when asked if the Avalanche started to feel like it was going to be a tough night because Rinne seemed to stop the initial flurry of shots, MacKinnon responded by saying “I didn’t feel like that…I felt like we were going to score lots tonight.” That’s not the answer of someone intimidated by his opponent.
MacKinnon showed a healthy respect for a quality team but the Avalanche no longer carry themselves as the crew that’s just happy to be competitive. They came to win.
Why does a win in November matter? Because in the past, the Avalanche wouldn’t have risen to the moment. They didn’t close out the big games down the stretch last year and put themselves in a tough spot to make the postseason. If they had been able to eke out a few more wins earlier in the season, they might have avoided the stress of a last-minute push. The high caliber teams recognize the big games on their schedule and rise to the occasion, playing playoff hockey even during the regular season. The Avalanche learned their lesson.
With the win, Colorado climbed to second place in the Central Division, coming within three points of the Predators with a game in hand. They rose to fifth place in the league overall. Meanwhile, Rantanen became the first NHL player to notch 40 points this season (followed by a second place MacKinnon) and continues to lead the league in assists. Landeskog leads the league in plus/minus. All despite a five-game losing streak earlier in the season and being the fifth youngest team in the NHL.
While there is still a lot of hockey left to play, the team seized an opportunity to get the monkey off their pack and defeat an opponent with an impressive record against them. The Avalanche reached a new milestone. They are no longer satisfied with just being competitive. The Avalanche are pursuing victories, not consolation prizes.