The Avalanche opened the 2017-2018 season tonight looking more like the 2013-2014 version of the team. Colorado leaned heavily on timely saves from Semyon Varlamov to gut out a 4-2 road victory over the New York Rangers at MSG.
The Avs came out quickly, like they have much of the preseason, and both teams traded early chances created by speed through the neutral zone. The Rangers set an early physical tone when Brady Skjei decked Gabriel Landeskog, who would be on the receiving end of more physical play throughout the game.
The Avalanche struck first early in the period off a nice Nail Yakupov feed from the side boards to Patrik Nemeth, whose rebound was tucked home by Matt Duchene for the first Avs goal of the season.
The lead was doubled five minutes later off a fantastic pass from Nathan MacKinnon to Mikko Rantanen on the power play. Tyson Barrie showed great patience on the blue line to find Mac, and the Avs took a 2-0 lead.
The second half of the period belonged to New York, however, as struggles with defensive zone positioning led to Ranger chances, including MacKinnon committing the cardinal sin of being caught below the goal line with both of his defensemen, requiring Varlamov to bail him out with a big save.
Avalanche penalties by Matt Nieto and Andrei Mironov would lead to two Mika Zibanejad power play goals in the final four minutes of the period. The first goal came after a goal mouth scramble and a failed Nathan MacKinnon clearance that fell to Kevin Shattenkirk, who made a great pass to a wide open Zibanejad on the back post to make it 2-1. Zibanejad’s second came after a soft clearance effort by Matthew Nieto and poor positioning by MacKinnon. With all four Avalanche defenders on the strong side of the ice, Zibanejad had all the room in the world to work, rifling the puck over the shoulder of Varlamov to tie the game at 2. The Rangers would end the period outshooting Colorado 14-7.
The second was marred by a litany of penalties, most notably three simultaneous slashing calls at the 7:58 mark for J.T. Compher, Gabriel Landeskog, and Rick Nash. The Avalanche failed to capitalize on an extended power play of 4-on-3, 5-on-3, and 5-on-4 hockey, giving up more odd-man rushes to the shorthanded Rangers than the Avs could generate themselves. Varlamov looked outstanding this period, waiting out shooters on difficult shots.
The game winner tonight came late in the second period off a fantastic zone exit by Chris Bigras, who fed the puck to Alexander Kerfoot on the breakout. Kerfoot had his head up all the way into the zone, and picked out Tyson Barrie trailing the rush. Barrie
Barried buried a slap shot past Henrik Lundqvist to give the Avs a 3-2 lead into the break. Kerfoot and Barrie deserve a lot of credit on this goal, but don’t overlook the great work by Bigras to spring the attack here.
Nail Yakupov started the third period with an audacious spin-pass to Matt Duchene on the doorstep, who was unable to corral the puck around Lundqvist.
Matt Nieto completed his penalty hat trick two minutes into the third period, and the Rangers continued to work over a lackluster Avalanche penalty kill. From here on out, this game was completely in Varly’s hands, and he looked fantastic.
Chance after chance, Varlamov was able to stay on his feet and out-wait shooters, and the Avalanche were able to weather the third period storm, including a game-saving, point-blank stop on Zibanejad with four minutes to play.
Landeskog knocked in an empty-netter in the final seconds of the game, and the Avalanche held on for a 4-2 win. New York outshot Colorado 39-26, but Varlamov was absolutely clutch.
- Chris Bigras looked great on the third defensive pair tonight. He showed great hands and vision, and was one of the few Avalanche defenseman that looked confident on the puck in the defensive zone.
- Tyson Barrie was involved in all aspects of the game, and was deserving of the game winner. His defensive skills looked stronger than we normally expect, and his usual offensive prowess shined tonight.
- Matthew Nieto had a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I’d be surprised if he isn’t healthy scratched against New Jersey on Saturday. Every decision Nieto made tonight was the wrong one.
- The second line of Kerfoot-Duchene-Yakupov was the best line of the night. Their chemistry from the preseason seems to have carried over just fine. Yakupov’s vision and playmaking was on display all night, and Kerfoot looked strong on the puck as well.
- I have no way of accurately describing how bad the Avalanche looked on the penalty kill tonight. They were 30th in the league last season on the PK. I didn’t think this season could be any worse. Then we added a 31st team to the league. It can get worse.
- Tyson Jost didn’t inspire a ton of confidence in his play tonight, but I thought he was one of the lone standouts on the PK. And by standout, I mean he wasn’t actively bad.
- Avalanche defensemen sure do like to pinch on the blue line, and it caused more than one unnecessary odd-man rush in this one. Come on, Avs, you’re setting a bad example for the kids... and my beer league defensemen.
- Varlamov looked absolutely tremendous all night, and was a rock when the defense around him struggled, especially late in the third period when a lack of stoppages led to the dismal fourth and third lines taking shifts in high-leverage situations. He stayed tall, read backdoor plays quickly, and never made the first move on scoring chances.
- Seriously. VARLY! VARLY! VARLY!
- For the first time in a year, the Avalanche aren’t the worst team in hockey!!!
The Avalanche continue their tour of the Eastern Conference on Saturday against New Jersey. This is one of those rare weekend day games, with the puck dropping at noon MST.