DENVER — The Avalanche at their best can play with any team in the league. That’s not the case for the current Avalanche — especially against the best.
Injuries have made the Colorado lineup nearly unrecognizable. It looks like a preseason game group, not one to put up against the Boston Bruins, who have the highest point percentage in the league. Nathan MacKinnon is out. So are all the other members of Colorado’s top-six forward group, save for Mikko Rantanen, who played more than 20 minutes against Boston. Top-four defensemen Bowen Byram and Josh Manson are hurt, too, and so are depth skaters Darren Helm and Kurtis MacDermid. Even injury replacements have gotten hurt this season; Shane Bowers suffered an upper-body injury in his NHL debut.
The quantity of missing players, as well as the quality of opponent, resulted in a 4-0 Avalanche loss at home Wednesday. It dropped defending-Cup champion Colorado’s record to 13-10-1. The team is seventh in the Western Conference in point percentage, but it’s lost three in a row and five of its last seven.
“We won last year, but it doesn’t matter,” said Andrew Cogliano, who filled in as an alternate captain with MacKinnon out. “A position to play in the playoffs isn’t given, it’s earned. There’s a lot of parity in this league. We’re fighting for points. It maybe sucks to say after Game 24 that we’re desperate, but really we are.
“You can only talk about the injuries so much,” he continued. “At the end of the day, you have to demand a lot from yourself.”
The Avalanche played with good effort throughout the game, though that wasn’t a narrative coach Jared Bednar cared for much in his postgame press conference. If you’re quitting, he said, you shouldn’t be in the league.
Colorado managed to keep the game tied at 0 through a period, thanks in large part to Alexandar Georgiev. Arguably his most impressive save came on Brad Marchand, who gobbled up a rebound and tried to tuck the puck in the corner of the net. But Georgiev slid across the crease and halted the puck with his right leg.
It wasn’t the Bruins’ only near-goal of the period: They almost scored after a David Pastrnak laser slammed off the glass and bounced off Devon Toews. The puck looked like it would sneak into the net, but Toews managed to swat it away just in front of the goal line.
“Good start to the game,” Bednar said. “Just couldn’t sustain it.”
Indeed, the Avalanche felt like they were barely hanging onto the game toward the end of the first period, and the Bruins broke through in the second. Less than four minutes into the frame, David Krejci got around Martin Kaut, his fellow Czechia native, then whipped a puck to their countryman Pastrnak, who had escaped the Avalanche defense and was alone in the offensive zone faceoff circle. The star winger ripped a one-timer past Georgiev, who didn’t have a chance on the play.
“Coverage was just not tight enough,” Bednar said of the team’s play throughout the game.
Then, midway through the period, Samuel Girard couldn’t connect with recently recalled Ben Meyers on a pass to get out of the defensive zone. Trent Frederic seized possession after Meyers couldn’t settle the puck and got the puck to Charlie Coyle. Girard, defending a partial 2-on-1, fell to the ice to try and break up a Coyle pass. Unfortunately for him, the Bruins forward waited, then passed around Girard, right to Taylor Hall. The former Hart Trophy winner finished before Georgiev could get across the crease.
Dryden Hunt gave the Avalanche what might have been their only highlight of the second period. He laid a big hit on Pastrnak, to which Tomas Nosek took exception. He whacked Hunt looking for a fight, and the winger was more than willing. Hunt swung at Nosek a couple of times and ultimately brought him to the ice.
Dryden Hunt ? love to see it
— Drew Livingstone (@ProducerDrew_) December 8, 2022
“That was a great play by Huntsy,” Cogliano said. “Good emotion from him. That’s what will keep him in this league for a while. It’s good to see that. He plays hard.”
The Bruins third line (Hall-Coyle-Frederic) chipped in again in the third period, as Frederic beat Georgiev with a snap shot. That line perfectly exemplified the difference between the teams at this point. Each player on the Boston third line has at least six goals on the season. The bottom two lines Colorado dressed Wednesday, meanwhile, have combined for three goals all season.
Another Hall goal put the Bruins up 4-0, which held as the final score. Colorado has been shut out three times this season, compared to only once all of last season. Again, given the lineup, that’s not a shock. Six of the team’s forwards Wednesday have AHL games for the Colorado Eagles this season.
The Colorado penalty kill had a strong night, staving off three Boston power plays. Cogliano liked the group’s effort and intention. Some new faces played on the kill, including Cal Burke, who was making his NHL debut. The power play, meanwhile, struggled, going 0-for-4. The team is using a top unit of Toews, Cale Makar, J.T. Compher, Rantanen and Alex Newhook, and it looks disjointed without MacKinnon.
“It affects it if we’re missing (people),” Rantanen said. “Chemistry is a big thing on the power play.”
“We’ll have to watch it,” Bednar added when asked what the unit needs to change. “Probably a lot after tonight.”
The Avalanche should have reinforcements coming soon. Bednar said Artturi Lehkonen was day to day after he got hurt Saturday in Boston, and Valeri Nichushkin and Helm both skated with the group ahead of the Bruins game. They’re getting closer. Evan Rodrigues resumed skating Wednesday, and he’s scheduled to be back in the next week or two.
But until those players return, Colorado will have to go with a lineup heavy on inexperienced players, just like it did against the Bruins.
“We’re going to take it, we’re going to teach it,” Bednar said after the loss. “If this group stays the exact same going forward for the next one game, two games, five games, I expect us to be better next game.”
(Photo of Mikko Rantanen and Charlie Coyle: Michael Martin / NHLI via Getty Images)