The Colorado Avalanche ended a very difficult three-game road trip with a visit to the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Having lost three straight, something the team did only once in the regular season last year, the Avalanche were desperate to come away with two points. The game went all the way to the sixth man in a shootout, with the Avalanche prevailing when Cale Makar pushed a quick, sneaky shot through Andrei Vasilevskiy’s five hole. Here are three takeaways from the game.
Avalanche Top Line Players Earn Their Keep
With Nathan MacKinnon having missed the first two games of the season for COVID protocol, and with captain Gabriel Landeskog having sat out two games with a suspension for boarding, it wasn’t until the team played the Florida Panthers on Thursday that the top line–Landeskog, MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen–started a game together. While they seemed out of synch in that contest, perhaps they just needed a game under their belts to get the magic back.
All three of the Avalanche stars scored in regulation against the Lightning. Landeskog, who came into the game with 15 points versus the Lightning in 15 career games, cleaned up a rebound from a MacKinnon shot, giving the Avalanche an early lead midway through the first period. After the Lightning tied the game, MacKinnon led a two-on-one breakaway with Rantanen. He held the puck long enough to get Vasilevskiy to commit and put a perfect pass on the tape of Rantanen’s stick. The Finnish right wing went down to one knee in the face-off circle, firing the puck underneath the goaltender’s left pad and regaining the lead.
The Lightning would tie the game again, and again the Avalanche would answer. This time MacKinnon buried a one-timer on a perfect pass from Makar for his first goal of the season, giving the Avalanche the lead for the third time. But the tenacious Lightning would not relent. With their goalie pulled, Tampa Bay won an important face-off in the Avalanche zone; they controlled the puck and got it to one of last year’s postseason hero’s, Brayden Point, who fired a wrister through a screen to tie the game with less than three minutes to go.
After a thrilling overtime with action on both ends of the ice, the Avalanche stars came up big again, with both Rantanen and Landeskog putting shots past Vasilevskiy in the shootout. Rantanen’s goal hit the post, ricocheted off the net minder’s skate, and crossed the goal line. The bottom line is that the top line put the team on their collective backs and delivered a much-needed win.
Kuemper Huge Between the Pipes
On a night when the Lightning outshot the Avalanche 32-27, the team needed its goaltender to come up big, and Darcy Kuemper did not disappoint. Having shown signs of mediocrity in games against the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals, Kuemper was benched in favor of backup goaltender Jonas Johansson in the game against the Panthers. He took the ice tonight looking like a man with something to prove.
Kuemper answered the call time and again in this game, with one remarkable save late in the third period. Erik Černák’s shot from the point wound up in the midst of a scrum in front of the crease with the puck just squeezing past Kuemper. Reaching back with his stick, he swept the puck to safety before it was able to cross the goal line. And, of course, Kuemper stopped four of the shots he faced in the shootout, one better than Vasilevskiy.
Kuemper will need to keep his level of play high to fill the shoes left by Philip Grubauer, who signed with the Seattle Kraken in the off-season.
Emerging Avalanche Stars Making Their Presence Known
By any objective measure, the Avalanche roster is weaker than it was a year ago. The loss of Brandon Saad and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to free agency (the latter going to the Lightning), Joonas Donskoi to the expansion draft, and Ryan Graves to trade means that newer, younger players will have to step up. Two of those players are already making their presence felt in the early going this season.
Bowen Byram has a goal and two assists so far this year with a +/- of 2, which for a team that has surrendered five more goals than it has scored, is impressive. But it’s Byram’s toughness and tenacity that is turning heads. Still a rookie (he played 19 games last season before being sidelined with injury), Byram isn’t letting anyone push him around. He found himself in the middle of more than one dust-up in tonight’s game, one of them when challenged by Černák, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs in at 230 pounds. (Byram is 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds.) The young defenseman is making himself a presence on the ice, something Avalanche sorely needs.
While Logan O’Connor has only one assist on the season, his style of play is menacing to opponents. Looking like the now-retired former Avalanche forward Matt Calvert, O’Conner–a product of the University of Denver, who signed a three-year contract worth just over $3,000,000 in the offseason–is seemingly everywhere on the ice. Whether it’s an aggressive forecheck to force a turnover in the offensive zone, a poke check to push the puck back to the neutral zone, or a well-timed shot, he’s a formidable opponent for any team. He drew two penalties tonight and seemed, at times, more than Tampa Bay could handle.
Watch for both of these young players to develop and flourish as the season goes on.
The Avalanche will try to keep the momentum going when they return home to Ball Arena to face the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday.