On Saturday night in Denver, the Colorado Avalanche and their fans watched as Milan Hejduk’s number 23 was raised into the rafters above the ice.
Hejduk himself was honored with surprise visits by his former linemates Alex Tanguay and Peter Forsberg, and the U13 team he coaches for his twin sons made an appearance as well.
The best of all, though, may have been the 7-2 final score the Avalanche churned out on the night honoring his number retirement. If there was ever a way to repay a franchise legend, this has to be one of the best.
For the first time all season, the Minnesota Wild is perfectly healthy.
While they came out of the gate hot, though, so did the Avalanche - who are heading into their bye week, and seemed determined to make their final game for the next handful of days really count.
It appeared that things were poised to go Minnesota’s way, when Long Beach native Matt Nieto took a tripping penalty four minutes into the game.
The Avalanche would continue their streak of dominance on the penalty kill, though, and Gabriel Bourque would capitalize on a centering pass from behind the net to fire one top shelf on Devan Dubnyk to open things up.
As far as first goals of the season go, this one is on up there; it was an excellent effort by Wilson to feed the puck out to a patiently waiting Bourque, who perfectly fired one past Dubnyk to get things going.
Although the Avalanche would take the second penalty of the night just minutes later, Minnesota would take a penalty of their own to end up playing 4-on-4 hockey about halfway through the first - and no one would find the back of the net again until the final minutes of the period, when both teams traded off goals to head into the first intermission.
Live look at MacKinnon during this 4 on 4 pic.twitter.com/kV5s0xpD7Y— Mile High Hockey (@MileHighHockey) January 7, 2018
First, Patrik Nemeth kept the depth scoring rolling with his third of the season, then Eric Staal responded just a minute later - scoring his 18th of the season, a reminder that he may actually still have plenty of life left in his game.
The Nemeth goal was incredible to watch, because it was the kind of complete effort that exactly no one displayed last season. A controlled zone exit, controlled entry, rebound shot neatly collected, passed back quickly, passed on again to seemingly initiate a high-low cycle, and boom - Nemeth decides to release, catching Dubnyk off guard and putting the team up 2-0.
It was an excellent goal by the defenseman, but forwards Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon put in a tremendous amount of effort leading up to the puck finally hitting home. If that’s the future of the franchise, things are going to look good for quite a while.
The Wild came out on the second period ready to see a momentum shift, and pulled it off handily with immense offensive pressure for nearly the first five straight minutes of play.
Although they only let off a little bit in the middle of the period, the Avalanche managed to find the back of the net for a third time; although they went almost six minutes without an even-strength shot attempt, a power-play opportunity about seven minutes into the period proved fruitful on the efforts of Alex Kerfoot and Carl Soderberg (who seems to be back, at least a bit, after last season).
From there, the period was eerily familiar; no scoring again until the final few minutes, when Mikko Rantanen would pot his 15th of the season on an incredible backhand chipped in over Dubnyk.
Although the Minnesota starter made multiple excellent saves leading up to the goal, a loose puck and a scrum left Dubnyk prone on the ice while a quick-handed Rantanen flipped the puck into the net for goal number four.
And then, sure enough, the period would wrap up with a 19th minute goal by - you guessed it - Eric Staal. A last-minute penalty would leave the Avalanche short-handed yet again, and this time they wouldn’t be able to stop a quick top-shelf rebound by Staal to give his team a fighting chance heading into the final frame.
From here, things got a little out of control for the Wild.
Carl Soderberg would pot his second of the night, finding the back of the net during the penalty taken by Jason Zucker for interference on Mikko Rantanen.
Bernier would get saved by the crossbar, with the puck pinging safely back into play to preserve the two-goal lead, then Kerfoot would feed the puck to Soderberg right on Dubnyk’s doorstep for an easy goal to make things 5-2.
Nathan MacKinnon would follow that up with his 18th of the season (and third point of the night) on a power-play, following the penalty earned by Dubnyk for getting into it with Alex Kerfoot.
At that point, Dubnyk looked like he was just ready for the night to be over, and he was yanked in favor of Alex Stalock - who would let in one final goal himself from Tyson Jost before both teams wrapped things up. Although Minnesota would make a fierce push at the end, Bernier held strong to help the Avalanche take home their fifth straight win.
You can say what you will about Jonathan Bernier. He’s had his moments of excellence this year, along with his moments of immense struggle - but when he’s needed most, he’s been absolutely dominant.
The Avalanche actually lost out on the possession game on Saturday by a narrow margin, starting out strong before falling behind on a dominant start to the second period for Minnesota.
You wouldn’t know it, though, from how Bernier managed to play. He’s been exactly what a 1B backup should be when the team most needs him to be that, and that’s a huge relief.
- I still don’t really know what to make of Nail Yakupov. At the pace he’s been scoring during games he plays, he’d finish a full 82-game season with around 30/31 points. For a player who’s averaging just 11:32 a night (and often getting much less than that), that’s pretty impressive. His defensive game also hasn’t been as bad as his history in Edmonton leads our eyes to believe, despite playing in a much less sheltered role - which begs the question, of course, of why the team isn’t giving him more games. It’s entirely possible that Bednar understands Yakupov’s history and is easing him back into his game, but it’s also possible that he’s just not a fan of the 2012 first overall pick; if that’s the case, it’s a little tough to understand why.
- When Jonathan Bernier had his worst statistical NHL season - his final year in Toronto, which nearly saw him go winless before he was given a chance to restart in the AHL for a bit - it was hard not to wonder if the mental struggles Toronto as a whole was dealing with weren’t affecting him. He certainly appears to be highly sensitive to pressure-centric situations; but while that hurt him in a negative situation in Toronto, he seems to be using it for good when Varlamov gets hurt. If that’s the Bernier Colorado can see more frequently, they may want to look at keeping him on as a 1B until they can find a proper heir apparent for Varlamov and develop him in the minors.
- I want to give all the attention in the world to the MacKinnon-Rantanen duo, who looks absolutely unbelievable together. But shout-out to Patrik Nemeth for his ability to think on his feet on that goal he scored; he was a promising prospect with Dallas before dealing with some serious injuries, and it’s good to see that spark for Colorado’s blue line.