After a very close yet successful first game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Ball Arena the Colorado Avalanche moved on to the rematch in the home-and-home series at PPG Paints Arena. The lineup included one big change as Bowen Byram was ready for NHL action once again but also lost Val Nichushkin due to non-COVID illness. The Avalanche rallied in an impressive second period to eventually take this game in a 6-4 final.
As tight checking game was anticipated so it was nice that the Avalanche got on the board first in this contest. Nathan MacKinnon slid the puck over to a waiting Mikko Rantanen but a Penguin deflected the puck into the net at 2:45.
The lead unfortunately did not last long as Darcy Kuemper left out a long rebound and a wide open cage to Bryan Rust at 5:30. Pittsburgh then took over the game for the rest of the period and ended up with 19 shots on goal but the score was still tied 1-1 after 20 minutes of play.
The Avalanche started the second period with a purpose and took over the game. JT Compher deposited a rebound after Alex Newhook put a shot on net as the new look second line created chaos in the offensive zone.
Nathan MacKinnon built on the lead 12 minutes into the second period with his second goal of the night and the Avalanche were cruising with the 3-1 lead. At 17:43 Evan Rodrigues potted a goal of his own on a Josh Manson turnover at the blue line to keep things interesting for the Penguins and just a 3-2 lead for the Avalanche with one period to go.
At the start of the third period the Avalanche received exactly what they needed which was an early goal to again put some distance between themselves and Pittsburgh. Just one minute into the frame Josh Manson scored his first goal as an Avalanche and fifth on the season on a bomb from the point.
The Avalanche put the icing on the cake to go up 5-2 with five minutes to go when Logan O’Connor executed a perfect two-on-one with Darren Helm and the latter buried the puck in the back of the net. After the top line fire power early in the contest the depth scoring did its job to put the game to bed in the final frame.
The tail end of the third period got silly as all within the final 90 seconds Jake Guentzel tipped a bouncing puck over Kuemper with extra attacker. Lehkonen put in his own for an empty net tally and his first goal as an Avalanche. And then just for fun Mike Matheson scored on a faceoff play to arrive at the 6-4 final score.
It was only a matter of time and a mere formality but the Avalanche officially clinched a playoff berth with the win and now they sit at 106 points after just 70 games. Now missing an entire top six line the train just keeps rolling along.
Artturi Lehkonen continues to impress every single game despite having a completely different line combination to work with each night, His forecheck ability and instincts to drive the net helped create two goals tonight even if he did not get credited with assists on them. The empty net goal was a much-deserved reward for his hard work. The trio with Alex Newhook and JT Compher looked viable as well matched up against Evgeni Malkin’s line most of the night and held their own.
For his return Byram had a solid showing. He played just over 15 minutes and mostly through pairings with Erik Johnson, Josh Manson and Cale Makar. In three minutes with Makar they had 100 percent of Corsi For share, expected goals and created four scoring chances. Byram had two shots on goal, three hits and spent a little time on the second power play unit where he had a couple great looks and set-ups. At times Byram was still fighting the puck a little but was the same dynamic, creative, smart and aggressive player Avalanche fans know and love. Just having Byram back on the team is a win for everyone but it was fantastic he helped contribute to a good team win on the road against a tough opponent.
The road trip continues at the Winnipeg Jets on April 8th at 6 p.m. MT.