On Saturday night, the Colorado Avalanche returned to the ice against the Dallas Stars seeking to recover from a devastating late-game collapse against the Anaheim Ducks in which they blew a 2-0 lead in the final eight minutes of play.
In front of a sold-out Pepsi Center crowd highly energized by the holidays, the Avs sought to return to their early season form. With Calgary having the night off, the Avs also saw a chance to add to their lead at the top of the Northwest division.
There was plenty for the largest crowd since opening night to cheer about as the Avs came out playing aggressive, winning races to each loose puck and applying constant pressure on the Dallas side of the ice. The aggression paid off, as about six minutes into the first period the Avs’ Chris Durno slipped the puck off the stick of Stars goalie Alex Auld and into the net for his first ever NHL goal, putting the Avs up 1-0.
The early goal invigorated the Avs and the crowd. Strong skating and efficient passing allowed the Avs to keep control of the puck for most of the first period. When needed, Avalanche goaltender Peter Budaj made brilliant saves to help protect the lead, and after a well-played first period, the Avs took their slim 1-0 margin into the locker-room.
In the Second period the Stars brought their offensive pressure to the ice and got off some good shots early in the period. The Avs looked sloppy, struggling to get the puck out of their defensive zone. This led to a number of close calls matched by dramatic saves by Budaj to hold on to the lead.
With five minutes left in the period, the Avs collected themselves and went on a steady offensive attack. Matt Duchene went around the net, dished the puck off to the center, and an eager Milan Hejduk readily slapped it into the net, increasing the Avs lead to 2-0.
It was ironic that the Avs took yet another 2-0 lead into the third period, and after Tuesday’s late-game collapse the familiar lead was far from being a comfortable one. However this time the Avs came out of the locker-room determined not to let this late-lead slip. They played with physical intensity, fighting hard for each loose puck and landing punishing hits every chance they got.
But, with about eight minutes into the period, the Stars responded with an offensive spurt that resulted in Steve Ott scoring a goal to cut the lead in half at 2-1.
Suddenly the atmosphere at the Pepsi Center got really tense as visions of another blown lead passed through the crowd. The Avs responded to the tension with “not this time” skating, great puck-control and consistent offensive pressure. After winning a loose puck, the Avs went on a two-on-one attack and Chris Stewart launched a beautiful wrist shot past Dallas goaltender Alex Auld. The crowd erupted as the goal gave the Avs a 3-1 cushion with just over six minutes left to play.
With a burst of momentum and the crowd roaring, the Avs dominated the puck and refused to let it into their defensive zone. After a few terrific saves by Budaj and an empty net goal by Stewart, the Avs treated their largest crowd since opening night to a solid 4-1 victory.
Avs goaltender Peter Budaj was the player of the game, making one brilliant save after another and holding the Stars to just one goal.
“I had to be ready for the game,” said Budaj, who has taken the role of backup to Craig Anderson this season. “Obviously I’m not getting as many chances, so it’s great to help the team win. I feel healthy and I was seeing the puck well tonight.”
Another key to the Avs victory was successful face offs leading to consistent puck control.
“Face offs are a big part of the game,” said Avalanche head coach Joe Sacco, “you gain a lot of puck possession when you win face offs. You don’t find yourself chasing as much and you’re able to control the puck.”
Another important factor of the victory was the enthusiastic crowd of over 18,000 cheering with every hit and every race to the puck.
“The crowd was great, they brought a lot of energy” said Sacco.
The crowd really shook the Pepsi Center to celebrate Chris Stewart’s third period goal. After Tuesday’s devastating late-game collapse, the 2-1 lead didn’t look very safe, and with the nervous crowd holding its collective breath and watching the clock, Stewart’s goal enabled them to explode.
“That’s been the downfall of our team,” said Stewart, “those 2-1 games in the third and failing to put the nail in the coffin, and I felt that goal really did that. It felt like we were down two goals. You gotta have that mentality, and that’s what we did in the third.”
“For that third period, unlike the Anaheim game, I don’t think we sat back,” said Sacco. “We didn’t play on our heels, and we tried to just keep it aggressive.”
With the win, the Avalanche are now five points ahead of Calgary holding first place in the Northwest division. Next up for the Avs are a few days off to rest and get ready for a trip to Ottawa where they’ll take on the Senators Wednesday night.