The Colorado Avalanche made the first of what will be two trips to Rogers Place this month to face the red-hot Edmonton Oilers, who entered the contest 12-2-1 in their last 15 and winners of nine straight at home. In what could be a preview of a possible Western Conference postseason series, both teams were quick out of the gate with fast, aggressive play.
While each team boasts some of the best offensive weapons in the league—Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl for Edmonton; Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen for Colorado— it was a remarkably tight game. There were no goals scored until the 5:24 mark of the third period when Edmonton took a 1-0 lead on a goal from forward Warren Foegele. MacKinnon tied the game ten minutes later when he corralled a loose puck and lifted a backhander past Oiler goaltender Mikko Koskinen.
The evenly matched teams skated two a 1-1 tie through regulation play and an overtime period. MacKinnon would go on to score the lone goal in the shootout, securing the victory for Colorado. Here are three takeaways from the game.
Both Koskinen and Avalanche netminder Darcy Kuemper came up big time and time again, especially late in the contest.
Oilers defenseman Evan Bouchard was called for an interference penalty with 2:24 left in the third period. The Avalanche, having just tied the game, were dynamic on the power play looking for the game-winner. Koskinen was resolute in goal, however, stopping four shots while his team was shorthanded.
During the overtime period, MacKinnon was called for a slash on McDavid, giving the Oilers a four-on-three power play. Kuemper was equal to the task, blocking a flurry of attempts in front of his crease, and stopping an astounding eight shots on goal. He bested Koskinen in the shootout, stopping all three shots he faced, while Koskinen surrendered a lone goal to MacKinnon.
Kuemper stopped 49 of 50 shots, and Koskinen stopped 33 of 34. Kuemper is now 34-9-3 on the season with a .926 save percentage and a 2.37 goals-against average. He is earning some buzz as a dark horse candidate for the Vezina Trophy.
Avalanche Defensive Depth
With Sam Girard returning to the lineup for the first time since suffering an injury in a game against the New Jersey Devils on March 8, the Avalanche have an embarrassment of riches on the blue line. It starts with Norris Trophy contender Cale Makar and perhaps the most undervalued defenseman in the league, Devon Toews. Other tried and true defenders on the roster include Erk Johnson, Jack Johnson, trade deadline acquisition Josh Manson, Ryan Murrary, and rookie sensation Bowen Byram. That doesn’t include enforcer Kurtis MacDermid, who has split time between offense and defense this year.
Related: Avalanche Defense Needs to Prove it’s Physical Enough for Cup Run
Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar has been trying a variety of defensive pairings as he gets his team ready for the playoffs. Clubs are allowed to dress 20 skaters in the postseason from a roster of 23, though that roster can change from game to game. The most likely six will be Makar, Toews, Erik Johnson, Byram, Manson, and Girard, though the final ten games of the season will dictate how Bednar sets his team up for a deep playoff run. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him mix and match players throughout the playoffs depending on the opponent and situation.
With Toews earning an assist on the MacKinnon goal Saturday, the Avalanche defensive corps now has 212 points on the season, a new franchise record.
Colorado Fighting through Key Injuries
Captain Gabriel Landeskog and Nazem Kadri, the team’s leading scorer, continue to be sidelined by injuries. Together they accounted for 142 points this season. Colorado has played well with a depleted lineup, going 9-1-1 over their last 11 contests, including the win tonight. Landeskog is reported to be skating again after undergoing minor knee surgery in mid-March.
With both players expected back for the playoffs, Colorado projects to have one of the two most potent offenses in the postseason, bested only by the Florida Panthers, who average a league-best 4.15 goals per game. The Avalanche, who have one game in hand, have scored 196 goals for an average of 3.80 goals per game.
Bonus Takeaway: Pioneers Prevail
It’s likely many Avalanche fans missed the first period of tonight’s game, as the contest coincided with the NCAA national championship game between the University of Denver Pioneers and the Minnesota State Mavericks. The Pioneers came from one goal down to score five unanswered goals in the third period to win the game, besting Maverick’s goalie Dryden McKay, winner of this year’s Hobey Baker Award as the best collegiate player.
The win was the ninth all-time for Denver, tying them with the Michigan Wolverines for the most NCAA championships. Even Avalanche pre/postgame co-host Mark Rycroft—a former Pioneer—admitted to watching the collegiate game instead of the Avalanche game. Other former Pioneers connected to the Avalanche include third line forward Logan O’Connor and Altitude TV’s color commentator, Peter McNab.
The Avalanche have a rare three-day break before they start a four-game homestand against the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday, April 13. They will play their last ten games in 17 days, ending with back-to-back games against division rivals in the Nashville Predators and the Minnesota Wild. Colorado is now 7-1-1 in the second game of back-to-back contests this season.