Special teams delivered the Colorado Avalanche an easy victory in Game 1 against the Chicago Blackhawks, but the following night those same units tanked the team in the second half of their back-to-back. Simply put: The penalty kill has to be better.
The Calgary Flames were only 2-for-5 on the powerplay, but this game turned sour on a second-period shorthanded goal by Calgary’s Dillon Dube that put the Avs in a 2-1 hole and went fully rotten after two quick powerplay goals early in the third period made it 5-1. And yes, goal no. 3 was a special teams error as well, as Rasmus Andersson came out of the penalty box and found himself alone for a breakaway.
Colorado’s top guns tried to claw back in it after that, with nice goals from Mackinnon and Nichushkin, but those were far too little too late after the special teams damage was already done.
Let’s get into how it all went down.
The Avs came out flying despite a very long night traveling after the opening game in Denver, and Calgary matched the pace. After a few rushes back and forth led to decent chances for both teams, Bowen Byram fumbled the puck through several Calgary defenders all the way to the front of the net, where it bounced off goaltender Jacob Markstrom right back to Bo who pushed it through for the opening goal.
This felt like a promising start for Colorado, but Calgary pushed back hard and generated rush chance after rush chance with speed the Avs' travel-tired legs couldn’t quite match. Around the ten-minute mark, Colorado’s defense tamped down the freewheeling style of play a bit and the game became far more controlled, but Calgary’s D was the group truly in control. Every Colorado outlet was stymied and turned back toward Pavel Francouz’s net as the Flames built a massive lead in both time in the offensive zone and shots on goal, including one that got through Frankie - a Brett Ritchie drive from the slot on a nice feed by Milan Lucic below the goal line.
There was pretty much nothing Francouz could have done better on this goal, but it was also pretty frustrating from a defensive perspective - Josh Manson and Byram both chased Lucic around the net and Byram couldn’t quite recover in time to get out to Ritchie. Manson clearly had the better position on Lucic, so Byram should not have followed them back there and definitely could have covered Ritchie if he hadn’t.
Woof. Not a fun period. From puck drop, it was a slog, with both teams struggling to generate much offense at even strength. Even worse, the Avs got an early power play and struggled to even set up with the man advantage, giving up multiple rush chances the other way that frankly made a shorthanded goal feel inevitable.
The entries weren’t crisp, passes weren’t crisp either, and the only thing that looked good on that powerplay was Francouz, really. But he wasn’t crisp enough as Dillon Dube beat him on a two-on-one that Alex Newhook inadvertently sprung when he lost a board battle cleanly in the offensive zone.
Back at even strength, the two Western Conference powerhouses traded weak zone time for weak zone time, as both teams’ defensive units kept everything to the outside. That is, everything but Nathan Mackinnon around 12 minutes into the period when he was shoved from behind in the low slot by Mikael Backlund directly into Jacob Markstrom. The Flames mobbed him while he was apologizing to Markstrom, and somehow he ended up with a roughing penalty while Backlund got a rough and a hold.
Honestly, a very confusing sequence, as it seemed like a clear crosscheck by Backlund sent Nate into his own goalie, but somehow both guys got sent off and Rasmus Andersson went with them to serve one of Backlund’s infractions.
The ensuing powerplay for Colorado looked pretty good for the most part, with Evan Rodrigues stepping into MacKinnon’s spot and firing away several bombs. Nate is a much better passer from that spot and a much more patient offensive mind, but ERod can really shoot. Might be worth trying him there on PP1 with Nate and Mikko down low to feed him at some point.
Unfortunately, Andersson was released right after a Rodrigues bomb hit Mackenzie Weegar, who was able to dish to Andersson for a breakaway, and the young defenseman beat Francouz five-hole on a nice move. 3-1 Flames.
The rest of the period was more of the same at even strength - pretty gross hockey between a tired team playing good defense and a wired team unable to break through that good defense. Nazem Kadri did his thing at the tail end of the period, however, driving the net hard for a rebound and toppling over Francouz after a push from Erik Johnson that was called a crosscheck, giving the Flames another powerplay heading into the third.
That powerplay was pure pressure from Calgary, as they maintained control in the zone for nearly the entire first minute of play until a Kadri misfire deflected in off of Tyler Toffoli in the high slot. Cale Makar nearly got a stick on Toffoli in time to break up the play, but unfortunately high sticked him in the process so the Flames went right back to the powerplay.
Just one minute later, Elias Lindholm found some space alone in the high slot following a rebound and buried a nice feed from Jonathan Huberdeau past a sliding Manson into a nearly empty net as Francouz had overplayed a possible Huberdeau shot.
Nathan Mackinnon got a breakaway pass from Francouz off the ensuing faceoff and buried it top shelf, and after some strong pushback from Colorado, Val Nichushkin beat Markstrom from the low slot on a nice powerplay give and go with Rantanen in the corner. But this game was 5-1 and never really got closer despite those two nice moments from the Avs top forwards.
The powerplay rocked against Chicago and with Nate, it was good in Calgary as well, but the penalty kill was dreadful both nights and absolutely has to get better. The kills in the first period got the job done but didn’t look good doing it, giving up way too many shots. Lukas Sedlak played shorthanded in the first but didn’t see any more special teams time the rest of the way — he’s going to need to be an effective penalty killer to justify his roster spot, so he needs to earn more time there.
Kurtis MacDermid was in the lineup again and managed to hit a few guys here and there. Really ineffective player, but more effective than Anton Blidh so I guess there’s that. Darren Helm can’t return soon enough.
The second line hasn’t gelled yet. Alex Newhook really didn’t stand out, and Nichushkin and Rodrigues did most of their notable work on the powerplay. Until Gabe Landeskog returns, this trio is going to need to generate something more than they have so far at even strength.
Ben Meyers and Logan O’Connor flew around out there, and while they didn’t do much of importance tonight they sure did look good not doing it. It will be really interesting to see how they get used when Helm and Landeskog return.
Manson and Byram need more time together to become a dominant pair, but the potential is definitely there and it’s tantalizing. A full season of them and Johnson-Girard behind Makar-Toews is going to be something special.
The Avs get some needed rest before playing the Minnesota Wild. Puck drop is Monday, October 17, at 6:00 p.m. MT.