Colorado had a tough road trip leading up to this game against the Florida Panthers. Two losses were increasingly frustrating in a multitude of ways. Going into this game, it was clear the Avalanche desperately needed a win against a lesser Florida Panthers team to break even on the road trip. They did just that and addressed some key concerns that haunted them before the offensive duel that was this Saturday's showdown.
While on paper, it wouldn't seem like taking a penalty in the first five minutes of the game was the best winning strategy, when you have Logan O'Connor on your penalty kill, there's always a chance for a shorty. Given O'Connor's recent goal drought, those chances likely weren't high today, but as has been the case his entire hockey career, Logan O'Connor could care less for the odds. Sam Girard started the play when he gathered a loose puck and cleared it off the boards and into open ice for Coglian to skate into. Florida's defenders fell asleep for a moment, which allowed Cogliano to pounce on the loose puck and create a two-on-one with him and O'Connor. Cogliano tried to feed a saucer pass to O'Connor over Gustav Forsling, but it hit the four on his back and deflected into Sergei Bobrovsky's chest. Bobrovsky was surprised by the deflection and was unable could not puck, which bounced right in front of O'Connor, who slapped the puck top. He broke his drought and gave the Avalanche the early lead.
Colorado was angry after Thursday's 5-0 defeat they took in Tampa Bay. They wanted to make no mistake and continued to push hard after the O'Connor shorty. On a shift where JT Compher was filling in as the center between the fourth-line duo of Denis Malgin and Matt Nieto, Compher made the best of it. On an already extended shift in the Florida zone, Compher grew it even further after he forced a turnover once the Panthers finally gained possession and looked to breakout. He gathered the puck, set up office behind Bobrovsky's net, and waited for the perfect chance. Once the opportunity opened up, Compher dished a beautiful pass through sticks to the crashing Matt Nieto for his first non-empty netter with the Avalanche (this season).
Colorado was up 2-0 and knew they needed to continue to push. They did so, even despite having to kill another Panthers power play, but couldn't find the back of the net a third time and entered the intermission with their two-goal lead still intact.
Things did not go so well for the Avalanche in the second period. Things started pretty tamely, but the Panthers were finding their footing. They began to sustain pressure in the Avalanche zone and got another powerplay. This one was much better than the first two, but I still failed. As the two teams continued to push back and forth, temperatures rose and climaxed when Andreas Englund and Ryan Lomberg threw down after Englund crunched Lomberg in the corner. The fight was uneventful until Englund managed to get Lomberg's head in his jersey and started feeding him rights until Lomberg went down.
Despite handily winning the fight, it didn't seem as though Englund garnered much momentum for his team as less than two minutes later; the Panthers got their first of the game. They cut the Avs lead in half with an Aaron Ekblad shot from the point that floated over Alexandar Georgiev's glove. It appeared that the puck took a deflection off the net during the front battle between Sasha Barkov and Sam Girard, explaining how it found its way to the back of the net.
Florida was feeling it, and so was their crowd. Feeling the momentum from their first tuck, it didn't take them long to add another and tie the game. Sam Bennett gathered a puck in the neutral zone and sped into the Colorado zone on a 2-on-2. Kurtis MacDermid was marking him but gave him far too much time and space, which allowed Bennett to rip a beautiful shot short side post and in. The building was rocking after that.
Colorado took notice of this and made sure the Panthers fans in attendance didn't waste their breath. The Avs marched down into the Panthers' zone and set up shop to try and get their lead back. Devon Toews took less than thirty seconds to score the ol' Nick Holden Special on a rebound from a Bowen Byram shot and restore Colorado's lead.
A 3-2 lead was nice, but the Avalanche knew, with their depleted blueline (now missing Erik Johnson) and Florida's firepower, that they needed another. And after two goals from the depth and one from a defenseman, the big guns needed to step up. It came on the powerplay after an Arturri Lehkonen shot created a mad scramble in front of Bobrovsky. Both teams batted away at the puck, but it eventually came out to Nathan MacKinnon. MacKinnon collected the puck, allowed the scrum to disperse, found his lane, and picked the top corner to completely reinstate the Avs' two-goal lead.
Both goaltenders stood tall as this firewagon hockey persisted through the latter half of the second period and the former half of the third. MacKinnon's goal allowed Colorado to settle down and control play better. I say a bit, but that means that instead of getting peppered by Florida, they were now going for a chance with them.
Chances were flying to start the third, but things eventually settled down as the teams headed toward the halfway mark of the frame. That was until Florida rushed down the ice to make it a one-goal game. The Avalanche collapsed as Nathan MacKinnon was caught overcommitting in the neutral zone. Bowen Byram got beat by Sam Reinhart as he cut towards the net. Devon Toews wrongly assumed Val Nichushkin was back in time to cover Sasha Barkov (which he was not). It all accumulated in a goal when Barkov tapped in Reinhart's pass on the backdoor.
Things got stressful for the Avs as they had to struggle to maintain a one-goal lead. Each team got a powerplay chance in the final half of the period, with both teams coming close but neither converting. Florida pulled their goalie and really piled on the pressure in the final three minutes. They maintained possession well and got looks. Unfortunately, they had one shot get blocked, which immediately turned into an empty net goal for Nathan MacKinnon to seal the much-needed win for the Avalanche.
It wasn't a pretty game for the Avs, but yet again, they put heavy offensive pressure n the other team. Something they have done pretty well coming out of the break. Tonight they finally got rewarded for it, something they hadn't done so well coming out of the break.
With Cale Makar, Josh Manson, and Erik Johnson (who left the game early after blocking a shot) all missing from the Avs' defensive core, it was easy to predict it wouldn't be pretty tonight. However, I thought the Avs managed well for the most part and had an excellent full-team effort to whether the comeback against an offensively potent team.
I was pleased with many players tonight, so I'll choose my favorites. Sam Girard, Val Nichushkin, JT Compher, and Alexandar Georgiev, I thought, were all key tonight.
Girard has continued to perform well recently. He's been tight defensively and is now starting to chip in on the scoresheet. He had a beautiful feed to Andrew Cogliano to set up the Logan O'Connor shorty and held his own on defense.
Val Nichushkin has been returning some of that power to his game recently. These past few games, I've noticed him crash the net and hold guys off the puck much more. He was also a force on the forecheck and backcheck again tonight. He created many turnovers using his long stick and muscling guys off pucks. Nichuskin has been getting countless chances. Eventually, one is going to go in, and the dam is going to break.
JT Compher was spectacular tonight. He was a puck hound all over the ice. I was constantly noticing him forcing turnovers and creating chances for teammates. On a game where I didn't think Nathan MacKinnon was at his best, Compher stepped up. How he doesn't get more love from Avs fans for the season he's been having is beyond me.
Alexandar Georgiev wasn't perfect tonight. Of the two goals he let in in the second period, you'd like him to have one, but they came off bounces and great shots, so I'm not too mad about it. He also had a scary moment in the third where it looked like he let in the tying goal on a shot from the point, but in reality, it hit the post and stayed out. Other than that, he was great. He made huge saves when the Avs began to turtle and had 42 saves on the way to a much-deserved victory.
The Avs now get a two-day break before starting a long string of back-to-backs with a chance for revenge against Tampa Bay in Colorado. They need to start stringing together some wins across this demanding schedule. This win could end up being the start of that.