(It really shouldn't have been this close, but by popular request, I'll be in shiny, happy mode for this recap).
The Avalanche showed they belong at the top of the standings as they held off a talented Wild team in a big 4-3 win in Minnesota. The Avs beat the Wild for the first time this year (after, you know, losing 4 games to a couple of really bad breaks and stuff) and guaranteed that they'll spend Christmas atop the NW division. They actually would have had a shot at first overall in the Western Conference, but the Sharks win over Dallas put the kibosh on that.
Even going all Altitude for this one, I can't say the Avalanche exactly came out flying in this one. In fact, I think both teams kind of looked like they were breaking in new equipment or something. Both teams had a, well, less-than-inspiring powerplay opportunity in the first. The Avs got a second opportunity late in the period when Owen Nolan dropped the gloves to challenge Kyle Quincey (after he put he put a legal hit on Antti Miettinen, shown above) and landed his grizzly ass in the box. The Avs didn't quite score on that PP, but did get the puck in just after the penalty expired with Matt Duchene banging home the rebound for his 23rd point of the year.
Chris Stewart made it 2-0 early in the 2nd period when his smoldering one-timer (set up by a slick pass by Paul Stastny) blew past Nik Backstrom into the top, far corner. On the replay, it looked like the Avs may have caught a break on that play, as it looked like Stastny clipped a Minnesota player with his stick on the play, but I called Curtis Glencross for his opinion after the game and he said that clearly the Wild player was diving.
Milan Hejduk made it 3-0 midway through the 2nd. He and T.J. Galiardi busted out on a breakaway. Hejduk, with the puck, wanted to pass but didn't have a lane so he wristed a beaut above Backstrom's blocker. Pretty, pretty play.
The Avs got a bit sloppy with that 3-goal lead...er, I mean they got a tough break. You know, the tough break like when you're on the powerplay and give up a 3-1 break to the other team and that team scores a shorthanded goal? Yeah, that kind of tough break. That goal was scored by Carl Clutterbuck who is really damn annoying.
The Avalanche returned the shorthanded favor not long after, when the Wild delivered an early Christmas present. Matt Hendricks and Cody McLeod grabbed the puck in the neutral zone and dumped the puck into the Wild zone...and then watched wide-eyed as every Minnesota player left the ice for a line change. That left the two on a 2-on-0 break. Those aren't the two most gifted scorers in the league, but even those guys can convert on a 2-on-0. Hendricks ended up with the goal after some fancy give and go passing. It was a crazy goal, especially as it would turn out to be the game winner.
As you all know, Owen Nolan is contractually obligated to score a goal every time he faces the Avalanche. I didn't have our team of fact-checkers research that, but I'm going to assume it's true. That dude always seems to score on us. Sure enough, he scored at the 11:37 mark of the 3rd. That goal was notable because it made it 4-2, but also because it was John-Michael Liles' final shift of the game. (Message or just a change to a more defensive focus?)
The Avalanche got another one of them bad breaks two minutes later when Martin Havlat found himself all alone behind Avalanche defensemen Brett Clark and Ryan Wilson and beat Craig Anderson for a deflating goal. This was Brett Clark's final shift of the game as well, his second straight shift that ended in a goal against, but at least he was in the picture when the goal was scored. Wilson was still at the red line, coasting back after getting caught pinching deep in a 4-2 hockey game.
But we're not being negative. Clearly, that was just a bad break, and the Avs were in control the rest of the way. Craig Anderson made some big stops and Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly had some big defensive shifts (not sure if Duchene's sliding save to block a puck headed for an open net made the highlight reel, but it was a big play). It wasn't as pretty as it could have been (and there was a couple of ugly boarding plays by the Wild including one where Derek Boogaard forced Kyle Quincey's head into the boards, knocking Quincey out of the game for a few shifts), but it was a win.
One thing that is pretty? All that facial hair the Avs are sporting right now. Not sure what the occasion is, but I dig it. Especially Chris Durno, whose beard gave him an odd resemblance to Peter Forsberg (from the waste up, I presume).