The Colorado Avalanche flew through four road games as part of a five-road games-in-eight-days swing, fighting through adversity to keep racking up points. Their hard work paid off but it was a bumpy road. Breaking down all the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly during the past week, ranging from weird injuries to a hat trick to depth scoring. It was a wild week.
The Good – Wins, Streaks, a Hat Trick
1. Who saw this coming? Anyone? Bueller? The Avalanche rolled to their best start in team history, going 7-0-1 in their first eight games. They currently own a 7-1-1 record. The team leads the Central Division and sits atop of the Western Conference. It’s a long season and lots can happen but starting the season with an avalanche of points puts them in good stead to weather the ups and downs of a long season.
Also, the Avalanche are winning while facing the toughest strength of schedule ranking in October, according to Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic. (from ‘Analyzing 5 reasons for the Canucks’ hot start to see if they can sustain their winning ways,” The Athletic, 10/22/19) Maybe coach Jared Bednar should take them out for some ice cream to keep their spirits up. Or stock the fridge with energy drinks. Spare no expense.
2. Star forward Nathan MacKinnon keeps finding ways to score. He earned at least one point in each of the first nine games, a feat he managed last season, as well. Nate the Great joins an elite list of five players who managed season opening point streaks in nine or more games in consecutive years.
A couple of the names may sound familiar as the list includes Wayne Gretzky and Guy Lafleur. Pretty lofty company. By the way, Sidney Crosby is NOT on the list. So MacKinnon has beaten Crosby at something. Expect more of that to come.
3. No one’s week showcased the mixed bag of events like defenseman Nikita Zadorov. Stick taps and congratulations for skating in his 300th NHL game Monday night. For a guy who was considered a bit of a project, that’s quite an accomplishment. But Zadorov has plenty of good hockey in front of him and coach Bednar thinks he can get even better.
He ranks in the top 20 for hits and sits in sixth place for penalty minutes, because apparently the referees like to punish people for being big. Is it really Zadorov’s fault if another player hurts himself trying to hit him? According to some officials, yes. And people wonder why there’s questions about officiating. Bouncing off a guy you are trying to hit is NOT a penalty. More on Zadorov’s week later.
4. Throw down those hats, Tampa Bay Lightning fans! Young forward Tyson Jost scored his first-ever NHL hat trick against the “lowly” Lightning, aiding in a 6-2 route of the team many favored to win the Stanley Cup this season. Jost came into camp with something to prove, has made great plays throughout the start of the season, and finally got rewarded – with a little help from his friends.
Linemate J.T. Compher passed up a nearly open net to pass the puck to Jost so he could score his third goal in the game. Total class. As a side note, only one hat hit the ice after Jost’s third goal in Tampa. Maybe they needed their hats to stay warm against the cold, bitter winds of defeat. Mwuhaha!
5. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating. Scoring depth is such a sweet, sweet thing. In the past four games,nine different players scored goals and 18 different players earned points. Each night, a different line has stepped up to propel the Avalanche forward. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s new. More, please!
6. Compher returned from injured reserve (IR) just in time to face the Pittsburgh Penguins. He moved from center to wing as Jost proved to be a natural center in his absence. Compher contributed three assists since rejoining the lineup and doesn’t appear to have missed a beat. One bullet dodged.
7. The Avalanche tweaked their penalty kill in the past week and it worked! Wonders never cease. They allowed only 1 goal in 14 shorthanded situations. Considering they surrendered 3 goals in 14 chances over the first 5 games, that’s a pretty significant improvement. Give that coach a steak! Unless he also coaches the power play. Then, maybe a McDonald’s hamburger may be more fitting.
8. Goaltending came up big this past week. Philipp Grubauer faced 44 shots against the Florida Panthers, stopping all but four shots, helping the team to an overtime win. The next night, Pavel Francouz saved 44 of 46 shots faced against the Tampa Bay Lightning, also contributing to a win.
Grubauer and Francouz came up big in the important moments, which is great. Facing over 40 shots in back-to-back games? That’s not so good. They might want to fix that.
The Bad – a Benching, a Power Outage, and Injuries
1. Coach Bednar benched Zadorov for the Penguins game, saying he wanted to see him kick his game up to another level. Unfortunately for the coach, the Pittsburgh game was the roughest game of the season, at least as far as hits go. The two teams combined for 81 total hits. 81.
That might have been a game where having Zadorov on the ice could have made a difference. Hindsight is 20-20 but it looks like benching him against the Penguins was a boo-boo. Too bad hockey doesn’t have mulligans.
2. Uh-oh. What does this mean? The Avalanche played in two games where officials were injured enough to be forced from a game this past week. The first was linesman Michael Cormier in the Penguins game, leaving the middle of the contest, and leaving only one linesman – a rookie. The second injury happened to veteran referee Kelly Sutherland who left the Lightning game, with one fairly inexperienced referee remaining to call the matchup.
It’s odd to lose two officials in one week, especially while officiating games for the same team. Maybe the speed of the Avalanche play is catching them off guard. Maybe it’s just an odd coincidence. But both games could have used the whole slate of officials. Nazem Kadri getting called for embellishment when he skated over the Lightning player Ondrej Palat’s stick as he tripped Kadri was outrageous. Any way you slice it, it’s pretty bad.
3. In order to make room for Compher coming off of IR, the Avalanche sent defenseman Kevin Connauton down to the Colorado Eagles. Perhaps the front office picked him up as extra insurance, in case the injured blueliners weren’t able to start the season or the young guys weren’t ready to start in the NHL. But his signing seems unnecessary. He struggled to keep pace with the Avalanche’s speedy style and one has to wonder, who thought he was going to be a good fit?
Trading Carl Soderberg for him seems – questionable. It harkens back to the bad, old days when the Avalanche would add odd veteran players and clog the pipeline so the new, young prospects wouldn’t get a chance to play. Those were dark days. Those days were also losing days. Let’s not go back there, ‘kay?
4. Thank your lucky stars. MacKinnon got hurt on an odd open ice hit against the Penguins. It was a scary moment (not the good roller coaster type scare, either). He spent a good portion of the game trying to stretch out his leg. Bednar described it as a charlie horse afterwards. But it was a quick reminder of how important MacKinnon is to the team. Facing the prospect of losing him for an extended portion of the season is not only bad, it’s Freddy Krueger kind of scary. And it’s not even Halloween yet.
5. Stop me if you have heard this before. The power play looked disastrous this past week. The Avalanche have surrendered two goals while on the man advantage. And despite ranking eighth for number of power play opportunities, the team sits in 14th place for scoring on the man advantage. In the last four games, the Avalanche have scored only once in 14 chances.
One could try blaming the players but that’s not the crux of the problem. The real issue is the system. Teams figured out how to disrupt the Avalanche power play last season. Yet, Colorado continues to run out the same system again this season. Considering the scoring talent on the team, power plays should be a strength, not a weakness.
But nothing changed over the offseason. The Avalanche didn’t add a coach or a consultant or in any way address the power outage. One shouldn’t be worried that going on a power play might be a bad thing for a team. It’s so bad, it’s ugly. The scary Halloween mask kind of ugly. Please, please, for the love of God, let the Avalanche play their scary, high-event style of hockey on the power play too. It works. Take off the leashes.
The Ugly – Rantanen, Altitude, & Scheduling
1. Say it ain’t so! The Big Moose – Mikko Rantanen – left the St. Louis Blues game after catching his blade and falling awkwardly. The fall was – ugly. The concern over his status – ugly. The wait to verify if he really is week-to-week – ugly. The disruption to the lineup – ugly. That’s a lot of ugly from one misstep. One good thing remains. There is hope Rantanen will be able to return in a few short weeks. But as of now, nothing is certain. And that’s the kind of ugly no one wants to hear.
2. The Avalanche are still blacked out locally. Altitude has yet to work out a deal with DirecTV, Dish, Comcast or any other provider to get the games locally broadcast. I ranted about that last week, so this will be brief (or at least, brief for me). The ongoing stalemate brings new depths of ugly, in a way that could have lasting ramifications. And if you think that’s bad, just read the next juicy tidbit.
3. Altitude worked out a deal with local Channel 20 to air the Denver Nuggets home opener. Apparently, making it possible for hockey fans to watch the Avalanche get off to a record-setting season start is not as important as getting the Nuggets home opener out to the people. Many have felt the Avalanche were the red-headed stepchild of the Kroenke-family-owned sports enterprises. But making it possible to watch NBA basketball and not NHL hockey – especially record-setting hockey – pretty much removes all doubt. At this point, it may be time to pick up another hobby.
Altitude keeps digging themselves into a PR hole with Avalanche fans. Do they not want followers? Are they actually paying someone for this kind of advice? Not only do they come across as tone deaf, but inept. It’s the kind of bad-look PR mistake that should cost someone their job. Unless, of course, the Kroenke’s really DO want to alienate Avalanche fans. You can’t make up this kind of stuff.
Perhaps it’s time to play fetch for 1,000 times in a row with my dogs. At least they value time, attention, and money. That’s more than can be said about the TV providers and Kroenke sports.
4. From the “What were you thinking?” file – whoever created the Avalanche schedule needs to have their head examined. The team just finished up a five-game road swing that saw them play those five games in eight days, including a back-to-back. Then they have a three day break before a road and home back-to-back this upcoming weekend. The team then has ANOTHER three day break before playing three games in four days (including another home and away back-to-back).
The Avalanche are in the middle of three Friday-Saturday back-to-back games in a row. Not a single one of their 12 sets of back-to-back games this season feature two consecutive home contests. At least they will put to bed one-fourth of their back-to-backs one month into the season. That has to be good, right? Right? It may be time to launch a campaign to send gift baskets to the NHL schedulers. Or at least a case of Red Bull. They need to pay more attention to the chaos they are creating.
What to Watch
Perhaps the Avalanche should thank their schedulers after all. The weird layoffs may actually help the team get Rantanen back sooner. But this week typifies the difficulty for the team to get into a rhythm.
They have three days off after facing the Blues before taking on a back-to-back followed by another three days. It’s a head scratcher but maybe it will help the team recover from some bumps and bruises. For example, if Rantanen is only out for a week, he’ll miss as few as two games.
Friday, Oct. 25 – the Avalanche finish their longest stretch of away games by heading to Vegas, where they will take on the Golden Knights at a surprisingly early puck drop of 4 pm MST. Hey, at least that gives the team time to rush home and sleep in their own beds.
Saturday, Oct. 26t– the team finally returns home to host the Anaheim “Mighty” Ducks at 7 pm MST. The Ducks have been playing quality hockey so the Avalanche best be prepared.
After that rush of games, three more days off. It’s a hodgepodge of a schedule to start the season but it doesn’t seem to have negatively impacted the Avalanche yet.
The real question over the next two games – how will the Avalanche rebound from Rantanen’s loss? The team faces some interesting choices, especially the coaching staff. Should they mess up the good line chemistry in the other three lines to fill the void? Do they extend a shot to a younger prospect? Can the team win without Rantanen?
These and other interesting questions will be answered in next week’s edition of “As the Skates Burn.” The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly will break it all down for your reading pleasure. Until then, hide the candy, the trick-or-treaters are coming!
J.D. has followed the Colorado Avalanche since the days of Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. Blessed to cover the team for nearly 5 seasons, 3 of those at other venues, J.D. enjoys working with the Hockey Writers. Proud parent of three humans and two dogs, you can follow all the escapades @JDKpirate.