The sliding Avs entered the game on a four-game losing streak, including a backbreaker loss against Calgary Friday night, which locked the Flames and Avalanche in a tie for the eighth spot of the Western conference. With just one week remaining before the playoffs, Sunday night was a must-win game for the Avs, however to snatch a victory they’d need to skate with passion against the top team in the West.
After an exciting see-saw thriller which saw multiple lead changes and numerous momentum-shifts, the Avs pulled out the needed win 5-4 in overtime, putting them two points ahead of Calgary — who lost to Chicago earlier in the day.
In what Avs head coach Joe Sacco called “the biggest win of the year,” the Avs kicked off the game with very aggressive skating, fighting hard for loose pucks and landing as many hits as possible. But while the Avs were looking for hits, the Sharks were looking for goals and were bringing constant offensive pressure into the Avs zone. The pressure paid off at the 11:59 mark as the Sharks’ Douglas Murray launched a rocket slap-shot from the point into the net for the games’ first goal.
The Sharks didn’t stop there, as less than a minute later they brought a two-on-one attack across the blue line and Jamie McGinn scored on a wrister to make it 2-0.
The Avs gained some much needed momentum with just over six minutes left in the period. After the Avs penalty-kill team impressively extinguished a tripping penalty on Kyle Quincy, upon taking the ice again Quincy immediately took a nice pass from Ryan O’reilly and scored on a breakaway wrist shot, cutting the lead to 2-1.
The Avs newfound momentum was hampered by two consecutive penalties on Stephane Yelle (one for tripping and one for a delay of game) which kept the Sharks’ power play team on the ice. However, the Avalanche penalty-kill unit stayed solid and the Avs were fortunate to go to the locker room only down by one goal.
The first half of the second period saw a lot of back and forth hockey, with each team taking turns bringing pressure but neither team able to get off any good shots on net. At the 12:00 mark the Avs took control of the ice, and their steady heat in the Shark’s zone eventually led to a goaltender’s interference penalty on San Jose forward Ryane Clowe. This was followed by another Sharks penalty on Rob Blake for tripping.
The Avs wasted four straight minutes of power play action, getting off only one shot on goal during the advantage. But the Avs kept the pressure coming and with 6:02 left in the period, Avs defender Adam Foote advanced the puck to Peter Mueller who, with a one-on-one attack, wristed a laser beam past Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and into the net to tie the game at two. In addition to tying the game, Mueller’s goal also gave Foote—who was credited with the assist—his 300th career point.
Then at the 2:00 mark the Avs continued their offensive attack and from the slot Duchene dished the puck to the center and a well-positioned Mueller wristed the puck into the net for his second goal of the period and the Avs’ first lead of the night. With a 3-2 lead, the Avs left the ice for the second intermission to a standing ovation from the enthusiastic and appreciative Denver crowd.
The Avs started the third period on a power play and wasted no time taking advantage of the opportunity. While attacking the Sharks’ zone and wrestling for the puck behind the net, just 20 seconds into the period the Avs Paul Stasny won the battle, took the puck to the front left-corner of the net and swiftly backhanded it in to give the Avs a two-goal cushion.
The Avs have struggled to hold on to leads late all season. Sunday night was no different.
With the score 4-2, the game got intensely physical with each team landing pummeling hits and many near-fights breaking out, but the increased physical play tilted momentum in favor of the Sharks. With under 12:00 remaining in the game the Sharks brought steady offensive pressure, and from the side of the net Danny Heatley delivered a centering pass which Patrick Marleau one-timed into the net, cutting the deficit to a narrow 4-3 margin.
Then with just 5:19 left to play, the Sharks went on the attack again, Heatley slapped the puck off of Avs goalie Craig Anderson’s chest, and Sharks’ Center Joe Pavelski pushed the rebound into the net to tie it at 4-4.
At the 2:41 mark play was stopped as Rob Blake landed a cheap-but-legal hit against the boards on Mueller, whose back was turned at the time. The hit left Mueller laying on the ice for a few minutes before exiting the game. The rest of the third period went back and forth with some close calls but no goals scored, and this game would have to be decided in overtime.
The Avs began the overtime period on a power play but once again were unable to capitalize, making the Avs power play team 0-for-6 on the night. However, just after the penalty was killed, the Avs brought the puck into the Sharks’ zone, Ryan Wilson launched a slap shot from the top right circle and a perfectly-placed John-Michael Liles redirected the puck into the net to seal the victory—and the two points—for the Avs.
“I Knew I was somewhere by the slot and just wanted to get it on net,” said Liles. “I’m just glad it worked out.”
The most reassuring aspect of the victory was the resiliency of the Avs. Down 2-0 in the first period, the Avs fought incredibly hard and were able to mount a comeback and take the lead in the 2nd period.
“We got down early there,” said Liles, “and it’s not easy against a team like [the Sharks] to come back from a 2-0 deficit, but the guys kept battling. “
“It’s the biggest win of the year,” said Sacco. “It was a big win, especially after being down two goals to start the game. I’m really proud of the way we hung in there; we were resilient, even [later] when we had a two goal lead.”
Although the Avs once again surrendered their two goal lead late in the 3rd period, the squandered lead was not caused by complacency. The Avs never sat back, but rather continued to bring unrelenting offensive pressure and crushing defensive hits. Even after the lead was blown, the Avs stayed unfazed and continued to bring the heat.
“We had a lot of energy,” said Sacco. “We were ready to play today. We knew the importance of the game and that at this time of year you have to have resiliency, you have to have passion and desperation…and certainly we had that [tonight] and it led to good results.”
The Avs offense definitely played with more passion. During their previous four-game losing skid the Avs offense struggled severely, but Sunday night they looked much more in sync as they passed better, set up plays better, and took better shots on net.
“I thought as the game went on we started really mixing plays,” said Sacco. “I thought we did a good job—for the most part—of looking after the puck.”
Another cause of the losing streak that was greatly improved Sunday night was the play of the Avs PK unit.
Said Sacco, “I thought our penalty-killing was very good tonight. When they had a 2-0 lead, if they get the next goal it makes it even more challenging for us, so our penalty-killing did a good job there keeping it at two and allowing us to get back on track in that game.”
With Calgary losing to Chicago earlier in the day, the Colorado win put them ahead of the Flames by two points with a game in-hand advantage. The victory on Sunday night coming against such an elite competitor could also give the Avs some much needed momentum.
“San Jose’s obviously a top team,” said Avs alternate captain Paul Stasny. “They’re really dangerous and so any time you can beat a playoff team like that it gives you a boost in your confidence.”
Unfortunately for the Avs, they might have to push forward without Mueller. After being knocked out of the game by Blake in the third period, Mueller’s return to the ice has yet to be determined.
“I don’t think [Blake] meant to hit him hard,” Stasny said regarding the controversial hit. “I think sometimes you’re off-balance and in an awkward position. He was in a vulnerable position and I don’t think he knew the hit was coming…hopefully he gets back to us as soon as he can because he’s obviously been a big factor for us.”
On a brighter note, the biggest factor of the night was that the Avs picked up the two points and jumped ahead of Calgary for that last Western Conference playoff spot.
“We know Calgary lost today,” said Liles, “and we know that we have our fate in our hands, and that’s the biggest thing. We have to win games and today was a huge two points for us, and the bottom line is we’re gonna have to win more games along the way to finish this season.”