The Avs came out with hopes to erase from everyone's collective minds the recent loss to Toronto. They stepped onto the ice looking confident and prepared. From the moment the puck was dropped, the team looked smooth, like they were fully in control, laughing at the Panthers and their puny attempts to stop the Avalanche.
This smoothness paid off almost immediately when Ryan O'Reilly was able to score 90 seconds into the game. It started with Duchene's masterful puck protection and movement, moving behind the net and confusing the Panther's D and getting them scrambling just a bit. A great pass went off Duchene's to O'Reilly out front and Radar was able to put it on net. Tim Thomas blocked it in a scramble, and in the confusion, O'Reilly was able to snake his stick out, corral the puck, bring it back, and sneak it past a floundering Thomas. Great hockey skills combining and leading to a goal by both of those fine gentleman.
The scales were nearly evened out a couple minutes later when Jonathan Huberdeau rushed the Avs net with speed, juked Nick Holden, and had an open path to a waiting Varly. Luckily, Landeskog was able to rush back and do some nice backchecking work to prevent a shot on goal from a great talent. Alas, once Hubs had slunk around him, Holden wrapped his stick around The Panther's stomach and got called for hooking. Power Play the first going to Florida!
The Avs were able to kill off that penalty without too much trouble, and looked good again. When the PK was done, they started putting the pressure on again, this time running the puck in the Florida zone for extended periods, altho they weren't getting tons of SOGs. At one point P.A. had a shot from the point after a great feed from a pinching Tyson Barrie, and the shot ricocheted off Thomas' chest and just sort of fluttered above his head for a moment. As I was holding my breath awaiting its (eventual) landing, Jovanovski was heads up enough to see the puck and bat it out of harms way. Drat.
Later, in that same sequence, a tenacious Parenteau drew a penalty from Weaver, who looked like he was pissed more than anything else. Like he was tired of being schooled by us. (Also, I'm going to take this moment to say that P.A. Parenteau has looked hungry since he's been back; plays doggedly, like a mosquito buzzing in your ear and the damn thing won't just go away. I like the way he's been playing a lot.)
On the resulting Power Play, there was a moment where Tanguay came all the way back to take the puck from Varly and sent an amazing outlet pass to Ryan O'Reilly at the FLA blueline. O'Reilly's speed was enough to catch a near break away, but a slightly harassing Jovanovski slowed him just slightly, and Thomas dove out of the net to poke the puck off of Radar's stick. I think he might have done it with his head. Even so, O'Reilly was able to collect the puck in the corner and sail a great pass around a scrambling Thomas to Tanguay, who was somehow able to traverse the entire length of the ice to be in the right place when Ryan needed him to be there. Nothing really came of it, besides making me happy.
Watching the play of the Panthers, they would oscillate when it came to their offense and pressure. Sometimes they would look like lost children trying to keep up with adults, and other times they drove into our zone and made everyone scramble. The line of Huberdeau, Winchester, and Goc was especially worrisome, and I kept a close eye on them when they were out. Roy tried to keep the Stastny line out there against them, but it wasn't always successful.
With 4:45 remaining in the period (on one of those annoying spurts of power that the Panthers came up with), Maxime Talbot saved what I was sure was going to be a goal with a perfectly timed poke check. My heard was beating fast, there.
With nearly 4 minutes left in the period, Paul Stastny scored a nice little goal. A defensive breakdown (some kind of confusion with zone assignments) allowed Paulie Walnuts to be wide open in front of Tim Thomas. Gabriel Landeskog sent the puck toward Tanguay in the far corner, where it glanced off a skate and ended up back on Landeskog's stick, and he promptly sent it to Stazzer, who was just patiently waiting for someone to notice him and give coverage. One person did notice: Tim Thomas thought that his best option was to dive right at Pauly's stick, the same way he did when he stopped O'Reilly's break away, but Stastny just looped it behind his back into the wide open goal like it was no work at all. Oopsies.
Overall, it was a great period by the Avs. They skated hard, passed well, and kept the Panthers guessing and playing catch-up. Its the exact opposite of the way they played against the Leafs a couple nights ago. And, honestly, the Panthers didn't look bad. They just couldn't quite get a handle on what the Avs were laying down.
In the second, the Panthers definitely started to get a handle on what the Avs were laying down. They weren't cracking us, but every now and then we would see them finding the chinks in our armor. It started early, at 1:50 into the period, when a Brian Campbell shot and subsequent save by Varly resulted in a scramble in front of the net. A couple minutes later, Gomez was able to steal the puck just outside of our blueline and drive it in, snapping a shot off of Varlamov's helmet.
But we were still getting our chances, too. At 3:22 into the period, Cliche almost scored his first goal when he crashed the net after a hard-fought Bordeleau pass leaked out in front from behind the net. We were passing the puck crisply and cleanly, still keeping the Panthers in a reactionary state, despite the couple of chances we gave them.
McGinn was able to score with 7 minutes left in the period. Duchene slid down to his knees just outside the faceoff circle, but managed to send the puck down the near boards to a coasting O'Reilly, who swung around the net and centered the puck to McGinn, who was crashing in and put a chip shot passed TT to bring the score to 3-0.
MacKinnon got a breakaway with about 6:00 left in the frame, but couldn't capitalize. A little bit after that, Florida's Matthias yanked Talbots skates out from under him, which often results in a penalty. On the ensuing PP, the Avs moved the puck well, Duchene hits another post, and Stastny had an excellent chance in the waning seconds, but the score sheet didn't change.
Then... well, we were definitely doing well, and I felt good watching us, but there was this 'eau de hubris' that accompanied it. We were getting a little sloppy and overconfident, but we still looked good, so it certainly wasn't anything to worry about. Certainly. Right?
It started to change with about a minute left in the second. Varly had to come up with some big saves, and the 4th line was having trouble keeping up with the Panther big guns. with just 17 seconds remaining, MacKinnon high-stuck Kulikov, and felt shame for the rest of that period, as well as 1:43 of fresh cut ice time on the other side of the intermission.
The Predators PP is apparently pretty awful, statistically, and nothing in my 'eye test' dissuaded me from that conclusion. The Avs killed off MacK's penalty with alacrity, but the Predators kept putting the pressure on. And on.
Oh, McNab mentioned something about Jesse Winchester sitting on Johnson, and could barely contain his giggles. That amused me.
Oh, and look at that. That pressure that I mentioned a second ago? It resulted in a goal for the Panthers! with 14 minutes to go, our old friend Tomas Fleischmann worked hard behind the net, keeping Tyson Barrie at bay with some strong skating, and sent the puck out in front to a waiting Scotty Upshall. Upshall chipped the puck into this little space between Varlamov's shoulder and the cross bar, from a crazy sharp angle. Wilson was there to try to stop it, but chose to use his skate instead of his stick and lost his balance. And the Panthers are on the scoreboard. Ew.
Now, you might think that the Avs would wake up, and decide that they needed to re-take the momentum and control of the game. You might think that. Instead, they sat back and protected the lead. Awesome. I could go thru my notes and talk about the great saves that Varly had, about how he bailed his team out as the Panthers pushed the pace and spent ALL THE TIME in our zone. But I think you get the picture. I was Mr. Grumpy Gills.
And then, predictably, Florida scores with a minute and forty five seconds remaining. Gilbert's blast from the point goes off something (apparently Upshall for his second of the night), and bounces right past Varly. Suddenly its a one goal game with all the momentum and the crowd on the not-our-side.
The Avs did manage to eek this victory out. But the Panthers controlled the game in the whole third period, putting 20 shots on net, and being constantly dangerous. It was not a win good for people with high blood pressure, and it's not a win that Coach is going to want to see again. Next time we get a sweet 3-0 lead, lets try a little harder not to blow it, hmmm?
A Couple Notes:
- Nathan MacKinnon is looking awesome. He didn't have any points tonight, but I can see his confidence growing with each stride he takes on the ice. Kid is going to be friggin amazing.
- Speaking of amazing, Duchene is doing everything right. He controls the puck and the ice like he was born to rule. He hit two posts today to go with his two assists, and he's looking more and more like he belongs in the top echelon of this league.
- Oh, one thing, Dutchie... Lets try to work on those face offs, eh? 4 of 13 is not very good. Talbot, how about you work with him on that, because Duchene's 31% is better than your 0 of 5. You guys can take Nathan along for the ride, 3 of 9 could be a bit better. Where's Stephan Yelle these days?
- Andre Benoit led the team in SOG. I'm just happy to see pucks rolling in from the point.
My 3 Stars:
1) Semyon Varlamov. Even tho he wasn't tested much early on, he stood tall when we needed him to. He didn't have oustanding, amazing, stand-on-your-head saves, but he was as solid as I could ever want my goal tender to be, and he's the reason that we won this game.
2) Ryan O'Reilly. Between the goal, and the breakaway, and his vision on the ice, and that luxurious beard... yeah, he's my number 2.
3) Matt Duchene. He's just so good at hockey. I even thought about putting him above Radar, but, lets face it, Ryan did goalz! more than Dutchie did. But watching the chemistry between these two guys grow is fantastic. Another year or two of this is going to deliver us something really magical on the ice.
Tomorrow at Tampa Bay, the second of three games in four days. Its gonna be a long weekend, boys, keep your chins up!