The Colorado Avalanche played host to the Pittsburgh Penguins in front of a national audience and packed Ball Arena, full of Avs and Penguins fans. Let’s just say they performed on the ice in the Avs’ final matinee game of the year.
It would be the team from the Mile High City who came out on top 3-2. They buried the Penguins under their quick offensive rushes, responses to goals, and outstanding work effort. With that being said, it was probably the evenest game the Avs have had this season, but an eventful one at that.
Things were active in the first 20 minutes. Mikko Rantanen had a great chance he sent wide after Nathan MacKinnon had darted into the zone. With those two was a new face in Andre Burakovsky, who’d switched lines with Valeri Nichushkin with Jared Bednar trying things out differently.
Artturi Lehkonen was also so close to his first goal in an Avs uniform after Tristian Jarry couldn’t handle a bouncing puck in front of him. His opposite number on the other end of the ice, Darcy Kuemper, had a couple of nice stops including an Evan Rodrigues breakaway.
The action was packed early on, the crowd was thoroughly invested, and even more so when Rantanen hit the outside of the post in the final minute. Despite the Avs being outshot 17-11 in the period, things were even-steven heading into the second period.
The new second line including the connection of Lehkonen-Nichushkin was looking great, testing Jarry. At the other end, Toews stopped Sidney Crosby on a brilliant diving stop on a 2-on-1 while stinging him in the process.
It was an active 0-0 game and looked to be coming down to a great goaltending battle. For Jarry’s sake, he would receive the first blow as he couldn’t control a shot from Burakovsky, and it was batted behind him by Rantanen to give the Avs the lead.
Pittsburgh was not going to let that goal get their spirits down. Crosby and Jake Guentzel each had chances before Crosby was able to collect a loose Kuemper rebound to tie it at one.
However, this scoreline would last only for a few seconds. Before you knew it, Alex Newhook left the puck off for Nicolas Aube-Kubel who smoked the puck past Jarry. It went in and out of the net so fast it didn’t even look like it’d gone it. But it sure did and it gave the Avs a 2-1 advantage heading into the final period.
The Avs never slowed up, as Aube-Kubel and Newhook almost started the period perfectly until Jarry stopped them both in the crease. He did the same to Rantanen point-blank and Nichushkin after he blew through four Pens players.
Jarry was the story of the third period, keeping Lehkonen out of the net for his first goal as an Avs player later on. He also robbed MacKinnon on a 2-on-1 moving from left to right on his back to keep the Pens in it with his best save of the game.
It would end up being a vital save, as Mike Matheson would find himself having the puck all alone to Kuemper’s left and put it past a diving Kuemper to draw level a second time.
Once again, just seconds after the Penguins tied it, the Avs got the lead back. This time, Toews was in the right spot at the right time with a shot off the end boards coming to his blade and nestling it into the twine for the 3-2 lead.
The game’s first penalty came at a crucial time against Darren Helm for holding, which the Avs killed off brilliantly. The Penguins never got set up and had to rely on pulling Jarry late on to get level for the third time. The third time would not be the charm for the Penguins and the Avs held on to win 3-2.
The talk of the game was the new connection between Lehkonen and Nichushkin. Early on, Bednar switched Nichushkin and Burakovsky. With this switch, the two new line-mates found life together great. They looked like they had great chemistry, moving the puck well, connecting with several passes and shots too. It was a thing of beauty to watch; the points will accumulate for both of them the more they play together.
The bottom six were great today too. Helm, in his 800th career NHL game, was getting physical including a big hit next to the penalty boxes on Brian Dumoulin in the third. Aube-Kubel’s rocket of a shot for the Avs’s second goal of the day was recorded at 96 miles per hour. This is what Joe Sakic wanted with his bottom six, able to be physical and get on the score sheet when needed and they are doing just that.
Even with the injuries sustained by the Avalanche, it was a team performance today. Nazem Kadri couldn’t go today despite being in the arena and eventually leaving according to Ray Ferraro on the ABC broadcast. With Kadri out along with Gabriel Landeskog, Samuel Girard, and Bowen Byram, the team was great without them. We can only imagine what a full-strength Avalanche team would look like and how they’d perform come playoff time. It was a playoff-like game both on the ice and in the stands. With a fully healthy team, the Avs simply look inevitable to win.
The Avs travel to Pittsburgh to play the second half of this home-and-home series on Tuesday night. While not on national TV this time, it’s still bound to be a good one once again. Puck drop is at 5:00 p.m. MT.