The Colorado Avalanche welcomed the Buffalo Sabres to Ball Arena in Denver Thursday (Dec. 15) for the second
and final regular-season meeting between the two teams. The Avalanche got the better of the Sabres in a wild game two weeks ago in Buffalo with a 6-4 win, but couldn’t get the job done at home last night.
Colorado out-shot Buffalo 41-21, but the Sabres survived a late charge from the Avalanche to secure a 4-2 win. With the loss, they fall to 15-11-2. Their 32 points are eighth best in the Western Conference and fourth best in the Central Division. Here are three takeaways from the game.
The Moose Is Still Loose
The Avalanche were blanked until 8:20 of the third period when Valeri Nichushkin threaded a pass through a defender and onto the stick of a charging Mikko Rantanen, who put it through the five-hole of Sabres goalie, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. For Rantanen, affectionately known to fans as “The Moose”, it was his 20th goal of the season, good enough for sixth in the league overall. The goal also gave him six 20-plus goal seasons with Colorado, which ties him with Paul Stastny and Peter Forsberg for fifth-best in team history.
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Rantanen’s 20 goals and 17 assists give him 37 total points in 27 games played and puts the 26-year-old native of Nousiainen, Finland on a pace to notch 112 points this season. Prior to this year, the 6-foot-4 forward’s career-best was 92 points in 2021-22. His 27:00 time on ice (TOI) Thursday also led all forwards in the contest and was nearly five minutes longer than his season average of 22:14 TOI per game.
Avalanche Slowly Getting Healthy
After Valeri Nichushkin and Artturi Lehkonen returned to the lineup last week, the team welcomed Evan Rodrigues back to the ice Thursday. Rodrigues, who had not played since Nov. 23, had an immediate impact in his return by scoring the Avalanche’s second goal of the game.
At the time, the Avalanche had battled back from a 3-0 deficit, cutting the lead to 3-2 with just over a minute to play. The goal came after a hard-working shift that saw the puck shake loose in front of Luukkonen. The Sabres buried an empty net goal 24 seconds later to secure the win.
The Avalanche are still waiting for the return of key players, including captain Gabriel Landeskog, superstar center Nathan MacKinnon, veteran forward Darren Helm, and defenders Josh Manson and Bowen Byram. The team expects all injured players back on the ice by the middle of January.
Despite their injury-plagued season and lackluster performance to date, the Avalanche are still the favorite to win the Stanley Cup in most Las Vegas sports books, though the odds have narrowed considerably.
The Surging Sabres
The Sabres are 4-1-1 in their last six games, outscoring opponents 29-16 over that stretch. The team’s average of 3.93 goals scored over their 30 games played is the best in the NHL.
The Sabres are following a path blazed by the Avalanche in recent years. Their starting roster Thursday featured nine former first-round picks – including first-overall pick Rasmus Dahlin – and five second-round picks. The strategy is starting to pay dividends.
Related: Sabres’ Tage Thompson Continuing His Remarkable Rise
Forward Tage Thompson is an emerging superstar in the league. Drafted in the first round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by the St. Louis Blues, the 25-year-old native of Phoenix, Arizona has 24 goals (second in the league), 11 power play goals (third ), and 46 total points (third) this season. He notched a goal and an assist against the Avalanche Thursday. It was his 12th multi-point game this year.
Up Next and Game Notes
Nichushkin had two assists and Cale Makar had one assist in the contest. Makar’s 26 total points are sixth best in the league among defensemen. The Avalanche are back in action Saturday night (Dec. 17) when they host their division rivals, the Nashville Predators, at Ball Arena.