Avalanche Weekly: Captain Nathan MacKinnon and Losses

As Christmas draws near, the Colorado Avalanche have played like a team desperate for some good cheer. The past week has arguably been one of their more challenging weeks this season. In the spirit of the holidays, and because Avalanche fans have suffered enough recently, this week’s good, bad, and ugly will feature a lighter touch, courtesy of St. Nicholas.

Santa doesn’t like to dwell on the bad or the ugly, so he suggested getting those out of the way early so people can enter Christmas full of good cheer. Who am I to argue with the great and powerful Claus?

The Bad – Anemic Top Line and Losses

The Avalanche entered, arguably, one of their more difficult weeks heading into the holiday freeze. It’s like year-old fruitcake and expired eggnog all combined.

The Avalanche’s reunited top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen have struggled to re-discover last year’s chemistry. Both Landeskog and Rantanen either came back too early or need a little Christmas magic to find their best game. Against the Chicago Blackhawks at home on Dec. 21, the top trio combined for a minus-11. They were not only held off the scoresheet, but they were also the prime culprits for giving away scoring chances.

Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen
Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen have yet to find last year’s connection. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

For the week, each one of the three only tallied three points apiece. For context, the scoring juggernauts Ryan Graves and Ian Cole also earned three points over the same time frames, off two goals and an assist each. The top lines’ performance looks anemic, especially for one of the higher scoring combos in hockey.

Santa thinks they are trying too hard to make things happen instead of seizing on opportunities. They are holding their sticks a little tight. He’s planning on giving them some rest, some holiday fun, and sprinkling some of his magic dust for them to remember their joy in playing.

The Avalanche also lost three of their last four games, including blowing gut-wrenching leads twice in the third period. That’s like shoveling a bunch of snow and then not bothering to put down de-icer. Legs feed the wolf. The Avalanche have not skated with the speed and focus necessary to close out games with a win. It’s unusual for the team this season but it raises concerns about a repeat of last season’s slump.

Maybe it’s time for the team to reflect on how they can play, instead of focusing on what’s not working. It may be time to build from what they can do. Santa will not be focusing on how they have been outshot 138 to 124 over the past four games, or outscored 14 to 10. Instead, he will be bringing each player a reminder of how, despite losing those games, they are still in a playoff spot. Hope is an important part of Christmas and Santa will be filling their stockings to overflowing with inspiration this year.

The Ugly – Coal, Schedules and Comcast

Generally speaking, Santa is not in favor of leaving coal in people’s stockings. He tends to believe in second chances, and even thirds. However, this year, a couple of issues punched his buttons, so these culprits should expect some dark rocks.

Whoever made up this season’s schedule deserves a big lump of coal in their stocking. How can there be three games one night and 10 to 15 the next? It makes it difficult to watch good matchups when they are all running at the same time.

Plus, the genius who came up with this season’s plethora of back-to-back contests needs to be sent to a coal mine. There’s just not enough room in a stocking for all the coal that deserves. People want to watch teams compete when they are at their best, not when they are exhausted from traveling to back-to-back contests.

The ongoing dispute with Comcast and Dish is costing Avalanche fans the opportunity to watch Colorado actually play fun, exciting hockey. Santa does NOT approve. How about everyone, in the spirit of the season, get a mediator and work this thing out. For the fans, for the customers, for goodwill. It is the spirit of the season.

The fans deserve something better than being blocked from viewing their favorite teams just because big companies are greedy. Not only should they get coal, but they all should get those annoying little elves on Christmas shows that mess up Christmas. The elves certainly can’t make it worse.

The Good – NHL Standings and MacKinnon, Again

After the rough stuff, it’s time to focus on more of the fun of the season. And there’s still plenty of good things for the Avalanche.

Despite their recent bout with losing, the Avalanche still sit in second place in both the Central Division and the Western Conference. In a season of miracles, it’s one more thing to be grateful for. They also remain fifth in the league for points, tied for first with the regulation wins tiebreaker, and second in goal differential.

That’s like a good Christmas meal, enough to fill you up but not look like Santa afterward. It’s a “don’t get cocky kids” moment, but it’s also a credit to the team’s work ethic over the season. The Avalanche can have a stinky week and still end up on the ‘Good’ list. Santa approves.

Nate the Great won the role of captain of the Central Division All-Star team, for the second season in a row. He is the first Avalanche player to be a captain twice. Hopefully, he will be able to play this time. MacKinnon’s skill this season has not only been a blessing to the Avalanche, but his strong play highlights all that’s good in the current NHL. Santa loves seeing his effort getting rewarded on the big stage. It’s long overdue.

MacKinnon’s third in the league for points, even after a slow week, and is second in shots on goal. He managed all of that with a rotating cast of linemates. Nate the Great is definitely getting candy canes and Christmas cookies, maybe even a moose-shaped one or two. He may want to share those with Rantanen. Santa’s also including, some holiday bubble wrap. Have to keep the star healthy.

Backup goaltender Pavel Francouz continues to shine like the unexpected and special present under the tree. He is third among all goaltenders in save percentage and goals-against average. With 16 NHL games under his belt this season, he’s looking every bit the NHL goaltender he’s desired to be. For his great effort, he not only gets to put the star on top of the tree, but also open the first present.

Phil Kessel Pavel Francouz
Goaltender Pavel Francouz shines in on the NHL stage. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

Defenseman Erik Johnson returned from injured reserve, bringing all the fire and passion the team needs to battle through a rough patch. Make no mistake, Santa recognizes the value of a veteran defenseman to hold down the fort when all around him falls apart. Johnson’s return couldn’t have come at a better time.

To keep Johnson well and reward him for his refreshing honesty, Santa will see what he can do about making sure his thoroughbreds are healthy and ready to go for their next races. Also, Johnson can expect a personally tailored first aid kit under the tree. If he looks closely, he may also find some spiced eggnog waiting by a Christmas cookie or two. He may need it to weather the push for the playoffs later.

Defenseman Ryan Graves is a plus-24, tied with the Carolina Hurricanes’ Dougie Hamilton. The Avalanche haven’t had a defenseman with those kinds of numbers since Ray Bourque. That’s rarified air and worthy of at least some reindeer Christmas socks.

Injured defenseman Cale Makar’s return appears imminent. He will likely play after the break. That’s good enough for hot spiced cider all around!

Cale Makar #8 of the Colorado Avalanche
Cale Makar eyes his upcoming return. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Despite missing seven games, Makar still sits seventh among all NHL defensemen for points, has zero penalty minutes, and he still leads the rookie scoring race. While Makar’s upcoming return may be the Avalanche’s Christmas gift, he’s also earned the good candy canes and a nice hot peppermint mocha to keep him warm. It can get cold at the top.

Christmas Wishes

The Avalanche will have one of their better records heading into the holiday break, regardless of how Monday night’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights goes. It’s a rare experience for Avalanche fans, and one that should be cherished.

There are a couple of important hockey tidbits for the week. The NHL will shut down from Dec. 24 to 26, with hockey games starting up again on Friday, Dec. 27. The holiday roster freeze will end 10:00 at P.M. MST on the 27th.

May you all enjoy the fellowship of family and friends, celebrating the spirit of the season, and may love, joy and hope abound. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!