This wasn’t the Colorado Avalanche team we are used to seeing at the Pepsi Center. Having won their previous five games on home ice, Tuesday night’s 4-2 loss in game three of the Western Conference semifinal showed more than a few cracks in Colorado’s armor. The San Jose Sharks were able to jump on some disjointed defensive play from the Avalanche to grab a 2-1 series lead.
In what was their worst home game so far in these playoffs, the Avs played pretty well for the opening 10 minutes but ended up falling flat for large portions of the game.
San Jose’s first three goals can be directly linked to a very specific defensive breakdown - one by each pair - and while it’s the defenders that will draw the ire, on each one there is a very obvious lack of support from the Avalanche forwards involved in the play.
Take the first goal for example; on first glance it’s easy to notice rookie Cale Makar losing his man in front of the net. Makar was unable to handle Logan Couture who picked up the loose puck and flipped it past Philipp Grubauer.
While Makar could have played it better, it was the complete defensive breakdown 15 seconds earlier that set everything up. There was a weak play along the boards the boards by Sam Girard followed by an assignment miscue between the defender and Colin Wilson that led to Couture’s scoring chance. All-in-all it was one weak defensive play from a number of Avs that compounded on each other leading to the opening goal.
Then there’s the second goal - the Erik Johnson give away.
Attempting a breakout, Johnson through the puck through the neutral zone, only to have his pass picked off by Timo Meier. It was a bad pass that resulted in a breakaway goal, but when you look at the landscape of the play, blame has to fall on more than just Johnson.
The Sharks did a great job of putting pressure on Johnson while eliminating the easy pass to Nathan MacKinnon. That’s the point in time when Gabriel Landeskog and J.T. Compher need to recognize an outlet is needed and circle back towards their own zone. Both wingers are standing at the far blueline with their passing lanes cup off by Sharks defenders. The fifth man on the ice was Ian Cole - who was on his way fora line change. Cole staying in the play would have allowed a short outlet for Johnson and an easy breakout along the right side of the ice.
Instead, Cole had his back to the play, the wingers hung out way too high and Johnson threw a bad pass up the middle to be picked off by Meier.
The Avalanche did well to fight back from the 2-0 deficit, unfortunately very shortly after Matt Nieto tied the game up, Logan Couture once again pounced on some porous defensive play by the Avs.
The initial mistake was created when Nikita Zadorov couldn’t move the puck quickly enough and had it knocked off his stick below the goal line by Meier. While Zadorov made the first turnover, it was Gabriel Landeskog who seemed to panic by throwing the puck up the boards to be picked off by Gustav Nyquist. Both Zadorov and Landeskog were then caught out of position as Nyquist sent the puck down to Couture who was able to bury his second of the game and the eventual game winner.
Colorado’s defensive play in game three simply wasn’t good enough to win. Once again Tyson Barrie was the team’s best defender by a country mile - playing more than 25 minutes as a result. Barrie was great, but no one else was without fault.
They didn’t overwhelm the Avs with shots against, but the Sharks were able to load up on high-danger scoring chances and it directly resulted in the two goals that Couture got past Grubauer.
When the highest volume of shots against are from that close to the crease, the team’s defense simply isn’t doing their job well.
If we compare that to the shot distribution in Colorado’s loan win in the series, we see a big difference.
In game two, the Avalanche were able to keep San Jose above the hash marks. While shots did come from the high slot, Colorado did a good job of keeping the Sharks forwards away from Grubauer’s crease. It isn’t a coincidence that this is the game the Avs won.
We know that the team is susceptible to mistakes - mostly because of the style of game they play but if the Avalanche want to take back momentum in this series, they are going to need to be a lot more diligent with the puck and with their defensive assignments in game four. There’s still a long way to go in the series and I suspect we’ll see an Avalanche team coming out ready to put on a show on home ice Thursday night.