After a very close, yet successful first game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Ball Arena, the Colorado Avalanche advanced to the rematch of the home-and-home series at the PPG Paints Arena. The lineup included a big change when Bowen Byram was ready for NHL action again, but also lost Val Nichushkin due to non-COVID illness. Avalanche gathered in an impressive second period to eventually take this match in a 6-4 final.
As a close control game was expected, it was nice that the Avalanche came first on the board in this competition. Nathan MacKinnon slid the puck over to a waiting Mikko Rantanen, but a Penguin deflected the puck into the net at 2:45 p.m.
Unfortunately, the lead did not last long as Darcy Kuemper left a long rebound and a wide open cage to Bryan Rust at 5:30 p.m. Pittsburgh then took over the game for the rest of the period and ended up with 19 shots on goal, but the score was still a 1-1 draw after 20 minutes of play.
Avalanche started the second period with a purpose and took over the game. JT Compher set off a rebound after Alex Newhook put a shot on the net as the new-looking second line wreaked havoc in the offensive zone.
Nathan MacKinnon built on the lead 12 minutes inside the second period with his second goal of the night and the Avalanche were cross with the lead 3-1. At 17:43, Evan Rodrigues made his own goal on a Josh Manson turnover on the blue line to keep things interesting for the Penguins and only a 3-2 lead to Avalanche with a period left.
At the start of the third period, Avalanche received exactly what they needed, which was an early goal to once again put some distance between themselves and Pittsburgh. Just a minute into the box, Josh Manson scored his first goal as an avalanche and the fifth of the season on a bomb from the spot.
The Avalanche put the finishing touches on going 5-2 with five minutes left when Logan O’Connor performed a perfect two-on-one with Darren Helm, and the latter buried the puck in the back of the net. After the top line firepower early in the competition, the depth scoring did its job of putting the game to bed in the final picture.
The end of the third period went silly when Jake Guentzel within the last 90 seconds tipped a bouncing puck over Kuemper with extra striker. Lehkonen set in for an empty goal and his first goal as an avalanche. And then for fun, Mike Matheson scored on a faceoff game to reach the 6-4 final score.
It was only a matter of time and pure formality, but Avalanche officially got a place in the playoffs with the win and now they sit at 106 points after just 70 games. Now the train is missing an entire top six line and the train is just running on.
Artturi Lehkonen continues to impress every single match despite having a completely different line combination to work with every night. His forecheck ability and instincts to drive the net helped create two goals tonight, though he was not credited with assists on them. The empty goal was a much-deserved reward for his hard work. The trio with Alex Newhook and JT Compher looked viable and matched well up against Evgeni Malkin’s line most of the night and held out.
For his return, Byram had a solid show. He played just over 15 minutes and mostly through relationships with Erik Johnson, Josh Manson and Cale Makar. In three minutes with Makar, they had 100 percent of the Corsi For share, expected goals and created four scoring chances. Byram had two shots on goal, three hits and spent some time on the other powerplay unit, where he had a couple of great looks and setups. At times, Byram still struggled a bit with the puck, but was the same dynamic, creative, smart and aggressive player that Avalanche fans know and love. Just having Byram back on the team is a victory for everyone, but it was fantastic, he helped to contribute to a good team victory away from home against a tough opponent.
The car ride continues at the Winnipeg Jets on April 8 at 18.00 MT.