The Colorado Avalanche have defeated the Buffalo Sabres by a score of 5-1. It was an emotional night with the return of Erik Johnson, but the Avs were able to string together perhaps their strongest performance of the month, and it was a big night for the stars getting back to coming together to dominate a hockey game. Val Nichushkin, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen all secured multi-point outings in the performance.
Before diving into the meat of this game though, we need to talk about Erik Johnson. There’s a good possibility that this was the final time we see The Condor in skates under the lights of Ball Arena, and as someone who doesn’t know the NHL without EJ in it tonight was very bittersweet. A lot of my core memories with this team heavily involve Erik Johnson, from his save in Game 1 against the Minnesota Wild, to his Instagram Live run in the Summer of 2022, there are nothing but good memories when I think of #6. Thank you for the amazing 13 years, and I hope we see you in this arena again.
The Avalanche got to work right away in this one, controlling the pace of play in the opening five minutes of the game, highlighted by two high danger chances from Valeri Nichushkin that were met by Sabres netminder Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, but moments after Nichushkin’s second opportunity, Mikko Rantanen flew into the zone and outwaited UPL before he wrapped a puck into an open cage. Ryan Johansen hit the post moments after the goal on a 3-on-1 opportunity, and going into the EJ tribute the Avs were in control, a great position to be in that the club hasn’t been in often this season.
The tribute for EJ occurred at the first TV timeout, and oh my, the emotion in the building was unreal. After an amazing tribute to Johnson, the crowd showed their appreciation with an “EJ” chant, which left no dry eye in the building.
The Colorado Avalanche crowd erupts in "EJ" chants for Erik Johnson— B/R Open Ice (@BR_OpenIce) December 14, 2023
Erik Johnson is playing in his first game in Colorado as a member of the visiting team pic.twitter.com/RF1ErGdXsj
After everyone got a moment to wipe their eyes, Colorado got right back to work, and it wasn’t long before the relentless pressure and mistakes with the puck came back to bite the Sabres. A messy goalmouth scramble ended in Nichushkin finally being rewarded for his fast start to the game, and with a 7-0 shot advantage at the time of this goal, it was beginning to feel like Colorado was going to run away with this game.
Sure enough, Miles Wood would add a third goal on a 2-on-1 rush shortly after, and the onslaught continued, 3-0 Colorado.
Ultimately, the Sabres would find a little spark at the end of the period, as once they finally made a mark on the shot sheet, and on their second shot would make a mark on the goal sheet, as Zach Benson deposited the rebound after the initial shot on goal. It was a tough end to what was a dominant period, but as long as the Avs kept on the gas, they figured to be in good shape.
The game slowed down a bit in terms of scoring chances in the second period after Buffalo’s powerplay concluded. Buffalo answered to Colorado’s 15-0 start to the game in shots with a 17 shot streak of their own, but Ivan Prosvetov kept the door shut. The physicality started to pick up, highlighted by a massive hit by Nathan MacKinnon on Jeff Skinner, which unfortunately knocked Skinner out for the remainder of the contest, but this hit ultimately turned up the tempo of the game physically, but the tight-checking nature of the game kept the score at 3-1 Colorado for the duration of the frame.
Nate MacKinnon levels Jeff Skinner pic.twitter.com/uP9YN1dlWa— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) December 14, 2023
To open the final frame, the Avs got back to playing more like they did in the opening period. When you’re the better hockey team, you put your foot on the gas and after establishing possession with a strong cycle game, Sam Malinski ripped a shot farside past UPL for his first NHL goal. This was the dagger, and set up the Avs to casually shut down Buffalo’s attack and bleed out the clock.
Later on after a Buffalo bench minor for delay of game, the third period party hit a climax when Valeri Nichushkin and Nathan MacKinnon hit career milestones. Nichushkin scored his 100th career goal on a nice feed from MacKinnon, who simultaneously notched his 800th career point, and the cherry was on top of the ice cream. Colorado takes down the Sabres by a score of 5-1, and salvaged the five-game homestand record by posting a record of 3-2-0.
Nathan MacKinnon was supposed to speak to the TNT panel postgame, but according to Liam McHugh was unable to speak as he was to “receive treatment” after the game. Hopefully precautionary. Additionally, Cale Makar briefly exited the contest in the 1st period, but returned for the 2nd and finished out the contest, though with only 17 minutes of time on ice.
On a more positive note, MacKinnon quietly extended his point streak to 13 games.
Ivan Prosvetov built on a solid third period against the Calgary Flames Monday evening in relief with a solid start tonight. He stopped 29 of 30 shots, and allowed the Avs to remain comfortable for the duration of the contest despite a 17-0 shot run.
Sam Malinski continues to impress in his NHL minutes, compiling his first NHL goal tonight. He also picked up an assist on the first Nichushkin goal.
The Avalanche will make a quick pitstop in Winnipeg for a meeting with the Jets, in a contest that’ll likely be for the top spot in the Central Division. Puck drop is set for 5:00 p.m. MST on Saturday evening.