The long wait is finally over as the Colorado Avalanche finally returned to the ice and faced the Pittsburgh Penguins to begin a three-game road swing with some much-needed healthy reinforcements in tow. After losing a player briefly in each period and then another terrible third period the Avalanche fell in overtime 2-1 to Pittsburgh.
Bowen Byram returning to the ice was a sight for sore eyes but then he left the bench for one minute after blocking a shot with his back early in the first period but was otherwise no worse for wear. Ultimately that was just about the most noteworthy thing that happened to open this contest. The Avalanche controlled most of the play a built a hefty 13-6 shot advantage in the first 20 minutes but couldn’t find the back of the net.
It took a 4-on-4 sequence for the Avalanche to find enough space to cash in and score the game’s first goal. After some superb puck movement from Byram and Sam Girard it was Nathan MacKinnon who took matters into his own hands, circled around all the Penguins and deposited the puck at 10:21. Artturi Lehkonen also blocked a shot which stung him in the foot and he departed for the second half of the middle frame but was able to finish the game just fine.
The third player to miss time for the Avalanche was Cale Makar after he took a shoulder to the side of the head from Jeff Carter and was pulled for concussion protocol. He too returned to finish out the game but it was too little too late as Colorado was engaging in another one of their terrible third periods.
After the Avalanche received the only power play in the final frame and gave a lackluster effort on it the Penguins proceeded to generate 20 straight shot attempts before finally solving Pavel Francouz at 16:22. Bryan Rust would get the equalizer after Francouz vacated his net making an aggressive save and couldn’t get back into it once a mad scramble ensued. So, to overtime the game went.
The visitors should have lost this game initially when the Penguins got a two-on-one and slid the puck past Francouz but a little bit of snow and the right-handed mitt of Francouz kept the puck millimeters on the red line and therefore no goal. Shortly after the Avalanche would receive a power play and could not cash in on the 4-on-3 man advantage. Immediately after the penalty expired another mad scramble occurred in front of Francouz where the Avalanche were getting called for their own penalty but it didn’t matter as Kris Letang scored the winning goal for Pittsburgh anyway at 3:36 and a 2-1 final for Pittsburgh.
The Avalanche started the game more focused than they had looked coming out of their previous breaks and MacKinnon in particular looked dialed in but the same old habits crept up with a putrid third period and ineffective power play which ultimately cost the team a critical win.
The returns of Bowen Byram and Valeri Nichushkin were noticeable as they helped move the puck forward and out of the defensive zone. Byram took a lot of minutes from Erik Johnson in particular and finished with a productive 21:29 time on ice with three hits and blocks each, an assist and +1 rating. Not a bad start in his first game back.
Stating healthy will be just as important as wins during this tough February stretch. Although each gave a scare it seemed all three of Byram, Lehkonen and Makar were fine and a non-issue after the game but something to watch going forward.