Years ago when the Detroit Red Wings came to town Denver would buzz with excitement, the Pepsi Center would fill with Avalanche jerseys, and the two teams would battle for every inch in what was, more often than not, a fight for Western Conference dominance. Thursday wasn't that kind of game. Gone are the days of big hits, line brawls, and postgame outrage from coaches and players alike. Instead we watched something of a ho-hum trap game between two teams that frankly didn't mean much to one another. The end of an era and today, a sort of "passing of the torch."
If you asked the Avalanche locker room about the month of March, most would likely say that no, it wasn't Chicago or Detroit circled on their calendars, but the St. Louis. The Central Conference best Blues have handed the Avalanche two of their most lopsided losses of the season heading into today's game: a 7-3 drubbing on November 14th and a 4-1 win on November 27th that was nowhere near as close as the scoreboard indicated. Those two games featured 5 roughing penalties, 6 fighting majors (including Duchene v Sobotka Rd 2), and 4 10 minute misconduct penalties. After the Blues smacked them around once, talk in the locker room was about revenge, getting the Blues back for some questionable fights and an embarrassing loss. Headed into tonight's game that conversation had changed, the common thread through every Avalanche interview was: "We're not the same team as we were last time we saw these guys." Last time, the Avalanche were playing for their wounded pride. This time, they're playing for a chance at the Central Division title. With a win today the Avalanche would leapfrog the Chicago Blackhawks and step within striking distance, just 1-point, of the St. Louis Blues.
A meaningful division battle, some bad blood, and an over-capacity crowd in the Pepsi Center. Sorry Avalanche-Red Wings, but you're just not the big show in town anymore. thegentlesurprise put it best in our GDT today: "If ya want it boys. These are the guys you gotta take it from. Today was a test, a big one and while they didn't get the two points, there is no doubt that the Avalanche passed.
The Avalanche came out with some very good jump to start this game. They were finishing checks, making smart passes, and winning puck battles in all three zones of the ice. Neither team was able to create anything particularly dangerous in the first few minutes until the puck squeaked out of a corner battle in the Avalanche's zone and straight to the stick of Alex Steen. Steen made a nice move towards the net but Varlamov stopped the backhander. The chance gave St. Louis some momentum and on an extended shift in the Avalanche's zone Andre Benoit took the first penalty of the night, holding the stick of a Blues forward.
The Blues had one good chance on the penalty kill, as a routine shot bounced off Varlamov and landed near the left post. Nate Guenin was the first player to see the puck and leveled the nearest Blues player to ensure he couldn't stuff the rebound. The Avalanche killed the rest of the penalty with relative ease before heading back on the attack 5-on-5. As the penalty expired the Avalanche broke Ryan O'Reilly down the right wing with a beautiful pass into the Blues Zone. O'Reilly spun 180 degrees to catch the pass then spun another 180 degrees towards Ryan Miller and the Blues net, where he attempted to pull the puck across the crease to his forehand and tuck it past Miller's skate. O'Reilly couldn't pull the puck far enough across his body and was denied what would have been one of the most beautiful goals of this NHL season.
Around this time Avs fans and media started to notice that Paul Stastny hadn't touched the ice since his first shift of the game. In Stastny's absence, Nathan MacKinnon moved back to center the second line, and Jamie McGinn moved up to the second line wing. That said, it was the Colorado Avalanche's first line that determined the pace of the first period. After the amazing O'Reilly chance the top line responded with a long possession in the Blues zone on their next shift. They cycled the puck well and eventually, Ryan O'Reilly threw a no look behind the back pass from behind the net to PA Parenteau in the slot. Parenteau made a move side to side but couldn't beat Ryan Miller.
To this point, the game was full of some hard hits, but neither team was doing much pushing or shoving after the whistles. Needless to say, that wouldn't last long. The extracurriculars started when Varlamov stopped a routine shot and T.J. Oshie gave him a small extra whack on the pad as the whistle blew. The Avalanche took exception to whack and started some serious pushing and shoving behind their own net. From that point on the tone of this game changed a little bit, there was a little less free wheeling and a whole lot more jawing and pushing. Tempers looked to reach their zenith after an offsides call at the St. Louis blueline, when Patrick Bordeleau and Barrett Jackman were tangled up at the whistle. Both heavyweights gave eachother a push, but the officials were quick to step in before things could go Rocky IV. As the officials separated the two Bordeleau was run into by both Ryan Reaves and Maximme Lapierre. Someday we'll find out if a Blues player has the guts to drop them with Bordy, but today was not that day.
Things settled into a bit of a routine for the next several minutes, with both teams struggling to establish any long possession, and any player with his head down getting blown off his skates by a hit. Playoff style hockey at its finest folks, no one wants to give up that first goal. With just over 5:00 left in the period, the Avalanche their third big chance to score the first goal, as Steve Ott crosscheck Matt Duchene at center ice and was called for interference. The Avalanche established some very good possession in the Blues zone with a number of quick passes and good movement away from the puck. The Avalanche nearly scored when they executed a play that has become a bread and butter staple for the top line: a high to low pass on the right side to Matt Duchene, where Duchene swaps spots with Ryan O'Reilly and heads behind the net only to pass back to O'Reilly who has now filled Duchene's empty space between the halfboards and the right goal post. O'Reilly took the pass and drug it across his body, trying to beat Miller's leg to the far post, but the puck slid off the side of his stick and wide of the net.
The Blues killed off the rest of the penalty successfully and seemed to get some jump in their step because of it. In the last few minutes of the period the Blues had significantly better puck possession, including an extended shift in the Avs zone for the Blues 4th line. On the Blues best chance Nathan MacKinnon covered for a mistake by his defensive pair and stopped a shot that was almost surely labeled for the twine. Buzzer sounds: 0-0 score and 8-8 shots after 20:00.
In the intermission Altitude and others in the media confirmed that Paul Stastny has a back injury and that he is doubtful to return to the game, meaning that Nathan MacKinnon will likely center the second line the rest of the way through this one. MacKinnon's line has played a sound defensive game so far in this game, but with a difficult matchup against the Backes line, they haven't been able to generate much in the offensive zone. The second period started off poorly for the Avalanche, looking a lot more like the first two Blues games than the first period of this game. The Blues dominated possession over the first four minutes and while the Avalanche did a good job of forcing the Blues to the boards and the point, they couldn't seem to break the puck out through the neutral zone.
It was, of course, the Duchene line that finally changed the pace of the game a bit in the Avs' favor. Duchene gathered the puck in the defensive zone and used his speed to dance through the neutral zone towards the Blues net. The Blues defense did well to force Duchene to the boards, but the center was able to fire a bad angle shot at Ryan Miller. A few shifts late, the John Mitchell flew through the neutral zone and tried to split a pair of Blues defenders, forcing them to pull him down and drawing the Avs second power play of the night.
This power play looked a lot like the first one. The Avalanche established really good movement and some crisp passing, but the Blues refused to bite on much and held their box on the penalty kill, limiting the Avalanche to a lot of perimeter play. The Avalanche had two outstanding chances on the power play, both of which resulted from broken plays in the Blues zone. First Jamie McGinn dove to keep a puck in at the blue line, Alex Pietrangelo started to leave the zone, hoping for a fast break, but McGinn was able to knock the puck back to his linemates while on his stomach. This pass created a 2-on-1 with Matt Duchene wide open right of the slot, but as the pass went across Alex Pietrangelo made an amazing play to sprint back into the frame and disrupt the pass. On the next shift John Mitchell lost the puck in the high slot, but regathered it in the ensuing scramble and got the puck across the high slot to Gabriel Landeskog. Landeskog beat Miller with a one-timer, but hit the post. In a cruel stroke of luck the puck bounced off the post and into the crease right at Nathan MacKinnon's feet, but the Avalanche rookie didn't see the tap-in until it was too late.
The Blues killed off the rest of the penalty and then jumped right back on the Avalanche with speed. T.J. Oshie flew down the side boards and made an amazing deke to pull the puck past Nate Guenin. Guenin bit on the puck and didn't play the body and as Oshie slid past Guenin Jan Hejda slid across to chase the puck instead of moving back to the middle to cover the pass. Oshie made a second deke past Hejda and, falling, slid the puck across to David Backes who escaped a back-checking Max Talbot to tap the puck past Varlamov. Guenin will likely take most of the heat for not playing the body there, but Jan Hejda was way out of position, and could have stopped Oshie, or the pass, or both, had he not followed Guenin towards Oshie and the boards. In just seconds, a beautiful chance for the Avalanche becomes a 1-0 deficit.
The goal certainly seemed to take the wind out of the Avalanche's sails. They'd fought for a number of really good chances in this game only to watch it slip away on a split second mistake and an incredibly athletic play from T.J. Oshie. It's all about responding in this league though, and the Avalanche got an amazing chance to respond to St. Louis's first goal, as Berglund sent the puck over the glass and was assessed a 2:00 delay of game penalty. The Avalanche were never able to establish possession on the power play, however, and the best chance actually came for a shorthanded Alex Steen, who nearly beat Varlamov low on the blocker side. The 5:00 following Backes' goal were all Blues, they out-possessed, out-skated, outworked, and outshot the Avalanche, but Varlamov made some good saves to hold the one goal deficit.
A great individual effort from Matt Duchene settled the game down a bit for the Avalanche, as he stripped the puck from a St. Louis player and fired a wrister which nearly handcuffed Miller. The chance gave the Avalanche a bit of jump, and Duchene nearly earned a breakaway when Erik Johnson skated the puck out from behind his net, and up to the blueline where he deked a St. Louis player and tried to hit Duchene on the rush. A Blues defender got a stick on the pass and denied the opportunity.
All that end to end play because a big problem in a hurry, because it caused Erik Johnson to over-extend his shift. The Blues got a breakaway out of the bad change, when Maximme Lapiere out-raced an exhausted Erik Johnson and drove the net. Lapierre made a good move in close, but Varlamov challenged him with a very aggressive angle and gave Lapierre nothing to shoot at. Johnson was stranded on the ice for another minute when Barrie lost his stick in the corner, but the Avalanche eventually cleared the puck and got a personnel change.
The Avalanche started to find some success with the dump and chase game near the end of the period, as P.A. Parenteau and Matt Duchene beat out consecutive icings in the St. Louis zone to keep the clock running. Duchene created a very good opportunity on his race to the corner, as Ryan Miller had left the net to play the puck. Duchene slid a no look pass the crease to take advantage of the empty net, but the puck bounced on Parenteau and he struggled to get the backhand shot off before Miller was back in the net to make the save.
What happened next isn't the kind of play that gets a lot of attention, but I think it is worth mentioning. On the next shift, after Matt Duchene started to give his team some new, offensive life, Patrick Bordeleau absolutely demolished Roman Polak in the corner of the Blues zone with a clean, full body check. Why is that significant? Because in order to get rid of the puck before Bordeleau tagged him, Polak made a bad, bad pass up the ice which wound up as an icing. A play which just as easily could have resulted in more Blues possession and a loss of momentum for the Avs instead became a faceoff in the offensive zone against a tired group. Those are the kinds of little things that Patrick Bordeleau can accomplish inside of a game.
The Avalanche started to come to life a bit over the last 5:00 of the period, but a strong neutral zone forecheck and tight defense through the middle of the offensive zone made it very difficult for them to create many dangerous chances. The Avs had one good chance on a 3-on-2 break by, you guessed it, the Duchene line, but they the third man was unable to get his stick on the puck after a tip pass from Ryan O'Reilly. With 2:00 left in the period Jan Hejda cranked a slapshot from the Avalanche point and past Miller, but rattled the post instead of the twine. After 2, the Blues lead 1-0 on the scoreboard and 17-14 in shots.
Third Period: #WhyNotUs
On November 14th the Blues led 5-1 after two periods. On November 27th they led 3-1. In the locker room the Avalanche said "We're not that team anymore" and through two periods today, they didn't play like it. But that's the thing about a statement game, it doesn't matter how well you play, you only make a statement if you come out with a win.
It almost doesn't need to be said, but it was clear from the third period buzzer that the Hitchcock and the Blue were content to risk nothing and rely on Miller and their defense to win this game 1-0. The Blues forecheck became considerably less aggressive and they started lining up two defenseman and a forward on their own blueline on the Avs breakout to force lots of dump and chase and board play on the Avalanche's zone entries. The system basically ensured that if the Avalanche got into the Blues zone, they'd be doing it alone 1-on-3 or 2-on-3, getting lots of 1 and done opportunities off shots 20 or more feet from the net.
4:00 into the period on the Blues first zone possession of the period the Avalanche suffered another bad bounce and the Blues benefitted with a goal. The Avalanche did a good job to disrupt a pass through the middle of their zone, but the puck bounced into the air and straight into the hand of Patrick Berglund. Berglund set the puck down, spun and roofed the puck past Semyon Varlamov who may have been screened by Nate Guenin. A broken play and the Blues capitalized. That was the big difference today.
On the shifts that followed the Pepsi Center was drowned in "Lets go Blues" chants, the Avs looked rattled and it was pretty easy to sit back and say "Well we tried, but this one is over." After several minutes those chants were finally drowned out when Matt Duchene created another opportunity on the rush. The Avalanche followed up with a good shift by the line of Landeskog and MacKinnon double shifting with Patrick Bordeleau, but with a Blues defenseman down on the ice Landeskog fired high over the net. Patrick Roy responded by putting Matt Duchene's line right back on the ice, and they came up big with the Avs first goal of the night. Matt Duchene collected the puck on the rightside halfboards and darted in towards the net, beating the defense to the goal and tried to stuff the puck five-hole on Miller. The puck rebounded off Miller's stick, and PA Parenteau was able to fire the rebound past Miller. 2-1 Blues.
The goal looked to spark the Avalanche bench again, but their excitement wouldn't last long, as Brendan Morrow laid a devastating blind side check on Patrick Bordeleau. The NHL went through a lot of trouble to take this kind of hit out of the game, but it doesn't matter what rules are in the game if the officials don't enforce them. Bordeleau, standing at the Avalanche blueline was several seconds removed from touching the puck before Brendan Morrow ran over him from behind. The Altitude broadcast team speculated that there was no call because the refs believed it was incidental contact, but on replay Morrow's head is facing Bordeleau all the way and he follows through hard with the arm on contact driving through not bumping into Bordeleau. Is it headhunting? No, but it absolutely, without a doubt interference and the officials absolutely blew the call.
The Avalanche nearly tied the game off a rare turnover from the Blues defense, but as Landeskog stumbled as he tried to turn back towards the Blues net and couldn't beat Miller, despite a good shot from his knees. The Avalanche had another beauty of an opportunity when Duchene drew two Blues defenders and Ryan Miller across to the right side, leaving Nathan MacKinnon wide open on the left. Duchene tried to center the puck, but the pass was disrupted by the stick of a Blues player. The Avalanche maintained a long possession on the shift where Duchene was hooked, held, and otherwise molested by Derek Roy behind the Blues net, but the refs weren't going to call anything at this point.
With the goalie pulled the Avalanche had two glorious chances off rebounds in close, first PA Parenteau stopped a clearing attempt with his chest and fired the puck on net. The net was wide open but Matt Duchene couldn't find the puck in his feet. On the next play PA Parenteau was greeted with another empty net, but he too could not get the puck past Miller as it bounder around between his skates.
With 1:30 left PA Parenteau drove the net with a hard slapshot from the point and caught Ryan Miller outside the goal. The Avalanche couldn't corral the loose puck, and Miller scrambled back into his net. Another 1:00 of empty net time and over and over the Avalanche came within inches of tying the game, including a backhander by Ryan O'Reilly that absolutely would have beat Ryan Miller over the shoulder, but went just wide of the net.
The game would end with a faceoff in the Blues zone with 11 seconds left on the clock. The contested faceoff wound up on the half boards where a pair of Blues players fell on the puck and ate the rest of the clock. Game over 2-1 Blues.
The Avalanche and Blues have met three times this season and the first two times they absolutely rolled over the Avalanche like they were an AHL team. Today was different. The Blues scored on what were, without a doubt their two best chances of the night and the Avalanche hit a post, a crossbar, and missed 3-4 wide open nets. Playing a man down and without their number two center the Avalanche took the Blues to the final buzzer and came within a few bounces of winning this game.
But here's the thing, this is what the playoffs will be like for this young, inexperienced Avalanche team. They will have to play games like this in a seven game series and they will need someone on this team to step up and break through. The team effort was there today, the systems were working well, but when you find yourself in a stalemate like this, you need a gamebreaker to finish it off. O'Reilly nearly did it, Duchene nearly did it, Landeskog nearly did it, but at the end of the day? Oshie did it and Miller did it.
The Avs have come a long way since November, but they aren't there yet, but this was the closest thing to a playoff game that many of these guys have ever played, and you can bet that they've learned from it and they're going to use it to improve their game over this final stretch, especially if they have to do it without the injured Paul Stastny.
MHH Three Stars of the Game:
1. Matt Duchene - without a doubt the best Avalanche player in this game
2. Semyon Varlamov - made the saves he should have and can't be blamed for either goal allowed
3. P.A. Parenteau/Ryan O'Reilly - Duchene drove the line, but these two rode shotgun like pros, anticipating Duchene, creating space for him and getting open when he drew the attention of the Blues defense.
The Avalanche take on the Winnipeg Jets Monday at 7:00 PM MST in the second game of their four game homestand.