Some games in hockey are going to be tougher than others no matter who you're playing. NHL records on the second night of a back-to-back are notoriously lower than with normal rest, and even tougher on the road. When that game is against a playoff-bound St. Louis Blues team that is playing some of it's best hockey of the season, the task is especially difficult -- or as an astute NBC analyst described adversity, "A long hill to climb."
There are plenty of strong reactions right now to how Colorado's season is concluding, but this isn't a team that's giving up or playing carelessly. No team loses it's two best players and has an easy time adjusting. Still, the Avalanche have managed a winning record while missing their top two centers, against a recent strength-of-schedule that's off the charts. No, they didn't win every puck battle after playing a tough Nashville team the night before, and they certainly didn't manage a lot of shots on net -- especially early -- but they did create viable scoring chances. There were multiple instances in the game where a goalie playing at a lesser level than the superlative Brian Elliot would have yielded goals. Sometimes you just tip your hat to the guy between the pipes. No one else is getting to him right now either.
The beginning of the game certainly didn't elicit confidence from Avalanche fans. Just a minute into the 1st Period, Carl Soderberg was called for a Delay of Game penalty for flipping the puck over the scoreboard. David Backes would score on the ensuing power play 48 seconds later to put the Blues up 1-0 (Video). The goal was Backes' 20th on the year.
And then the Avalanche did something no team had done against the Blues in the previous four games: score a goal. After coming away with the puck in their own zone, Colorado started a rush up ice. Mikkel Boedker dropped a pass to Tyson Barrie after breaking into St. Louis' zone, who then made a beautiful deke around Colton Parayko and dished to Mikhail Grigorenko to tie the game at one (Video). Lost in all the flash was Shawn Matthias hustling to the net and providing the screen necessary to make the play happen.
Unfortunately, it was all St. Louis from there. Following a John Mitchell hooking penalty, the Blues would take the lead again. This time, Paul Stastny got the stuck on an odd-man rush and made a fantastic saucer pass over former teammate Erik Johnson to Troy Brouwer for the easy score (Video). That was Brouwer's 16th goal on the season and Stastny's fifth assist in the last three games.
The Blues would increase their lead three minutes later when Chris Bigras made his biggest mistake in an Avalanche uniform. He whiffed on a D-to-D pass while retreating into his own zone and turned the puck over to the always-dangerous Vladimir Tarasenko, who ripped a slapshot past Semyon Varlamov for his 36th goal of the year (Video).
Colorado would pull their goal with more than 4:30 left in the 3rd Period, but not matter how many shots they hurled at Elliot, none would cross the goal line. The Avs fell to 39-34-4 on the year, and with the Wild's 4-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks, they will fall back to five points behind in the Wild Card standings.
Yup, it will be a "long" hill to climb.
- Brian Elliot - Once again. Tip 'O the Hat. Yeah, he was responsible for ending St. Louis' impressive shutout streak, but that's all. Nothing flashy, just shut the door every time the Avs came knocking.
- Nikita Zadorov - Led all Avalanche skaters with Plus-4 CF 5v5, getting more defensive zone starts, and keeping STL off the scoreboard. Eye test thought it was a pretty quiet night while he was on the ice, which is about all you can ask from a recently called-up 20-year old defenseman. The breakout decisions have room to improve, but he deserves to be in the NHL.
- Nick Holden - He's had some tough stretches of games this season and we're seeing another one of those right now. Minus-17 CF 5v5 on a night the Avs were only Minus-12. Holden needs to make a better end-of-season impression on the team going into the offseason.