The defending Stanley Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche opened their season against the Chicago Blackhawks with plenty of pomp and circumstance. Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus showed up to accept his newfound status as an honorary Avalanche icon and lead the crowd through a rendition of “All the Small Things” as Stanley Cup Playoff highlights flowed through the big screens while the players watched. Jack Johnson, clad in his new Chicago jersey, joined the Avalanche to celebrate the raising of a championship banner he helped create, and injured captain Gabriel Landeskog took his long-awaited captain’s skate with the cup on home ice as the fans erupted. There was a lot of celebration and emotion to get through in the pregame, and no one would have faulted the Avalanche for coming out a little flat in the wake of a celebration of last season’s accomplishments.
Instead, Colorado came out and did what they normally do, and punted an inferior opponent into the stratosphere. If you were only tangentially paying attention to the game, you would be forgiven for assuming that the first line of Arrturi Lehkonen, Nathan Mackinnon and Mikko Raantanen spent the entire first period on a power play. The Avalanche drove the play from the moment the puck dropped, culminating with Andrew Cogliano scoring his trademark greasy goal off some Nathan Mackinnon wizardry. A few minutes later, they went a man down and lost track of Jonathan Toews at the back post, as he scored a game tying goal that worried exactly zero Avs fans in the arena. Valeri Nichuschkin answered a little over a minute later with a wicked wrister on the power play, and Colorado entered the first intermission up 2-1 with a 68% Corsi for rating at even strength.
They controlled the second period and shut down Chicago’s somewhat persistent attack, then subsequently got two power play goals from Artturi Lehkonen (who yours truly predicted would score 30 goals in the Mile High Hockey season opening roundtable). By the end of the second period, this game between the defending champs and a team already playing in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes was functionally over at 4-1.
The third period felt like mostly a formality at this point, but Chicago scored another power play goal less than two minutes in to make the Avalanche work for their win. By Corsi, this was actually the most dominant period of the night for the Avs, and Val Nichushkin capped their terrific performance off with a power play goal with just under three minutes left to ice the game. The short story of contest this was of two teams trending in diametrically opposite directions.
Mackinnon is still Nate the Great, Cale Makar might have become faster and more dangerous which seems physically impossible, and Mikko Raantanen had one of the quietest yet most dominant 4 assist nights you’ll ever see. Colorado’s great players are still great and they are the main reasons this team will contend for another Stanley Cup this year.
So what about the new guys? As players like Darren Helm (returning but currently injured) and Andrew Cogliano demonstrated last year, you can’t win a championship without the secondary and tertiary players making major contributions at some point.
Alex Newhook looked the part of a second line center. He was strong on the puck all night and made lots of plays for his teammates every time they entered the offensive zone with speed, while still being able to cover his defensive responsibilities and working hard on the backcheck all night. If this is the player the Avs can expect at 2C, they will be just fine in their quest to replace Nazem Kadri.
Evan Rodrigues worked hard on the forecheck and demonstrated the kind of skating ability that the Avs covet so much. He looks to be a perfect fit for their style of play and will slot very nicely into their middle six. He was not perfect, as he was called for interference late in the second, but it was an OK penalty to take because if he let his man go by freely, Chicago gets at least an odd-man rush on the play.
The fourth line was the last brand-new addition under scrutiny, consisting of newcomer Lukáš Sedlák, rookie Ben Meyers and converted defenseman Kurtis MacDermid. Sedlák in particular raised eyebrows across Avalanche fandom, as he edged out favored prospects like Martin Kaut and Shane Bowers for the last spot in the starting lineup. It’s only one game, but so far it’s clear why Sedlák found is way into coach Jared Bednar’s good graces. He worked hard on the forecheck, moved both himself and the puck quickly and was generally very strong and decisive in his play. He fits the Avs system very well and should he keep up this level of play through the early season, Kaut and Bowers will have an uphill climb into the NHL starting lineup.
It was only one game against a team that is a longshot to make the playoffs, and it felt like more of a celebration of last season than a contest taking place within this brand-new season, but the champs are the champs for a reason. It may be a new year, but the reality is still the same as the last time we watched them play a meaningful game: the Colorado Avalanche are the best hockey team on Earth.