Friday night, the Colorado Avalanche took on the Phoenix Coyotes in what promised to be an epic battle between two teams enjoying highly surprising comeback seasons. Both teams came to the rink hot, as the ‘Yotes had won eight of their last ten games and the Avs had won four out of five.
Both clubs owe much of their success to excellent play in the net, as both the ‘Yotes’ Ilya Bryzgalov and the Avs’ Craig Anderson are having career-years at the goaltender position. Friday night these two goaltending stars shined bright, but Anderson a bit brighter as the Avs relied on their season-long formula of awesome goaltending coupled with solid defense and just enough offense to tally another win.
Entering the game, the streaking Coyotes had climbed to the fourth spot in the Western Conference with 79 points, while the Avs held the sixth spot at 74 points and were tied with Vancouver for first place in the Northwest division. With the Olympics break approaching and playoffs just around the corner, there was no overstating the importance of this game for each team.
Both teams seemed aware of the significance of the game when the puck dropped, as each offense looked cautious and tentative, allowing the defenses to keep the puck out of their zones. But this trend was changed by three straight Coyote penalties leading to three consecutive Avalanche power plays, including a temporary five-on-three advantage just seven minutes into the game.
With time running out on the five-on-three attack, the Avs passed the puck around the zone; Chris Stewart then launched a hard shot that bounced off of Bryzgalov and towards Matt Duchene who quickly slapped the rebound into the net to score the game’s first goal.
“Stewy took a great shot,” said Duchene, “and it just came up to me and I was able to put it in.”
The rest of the first period was a lesson in goaltending as both Anderson and Bryzgalov made good saves shutting down any serious offensive threats, and the Avs went to the locker room holding on to their slim-as-it-gets 1-0 lead.
The Coyotes came out attacking in the second period, bringing steady heated pressure onto the Avs side of the ice. Anderson made a series of tough saves, but eventually the unrelenting pressure proved too much for him, and at the 4:24 mark the Coyotes’ Martin Hanzal slapped a rebound into the net to tie the game at one.
For the rest of the period the Coyotes continued to dominate the Avs. The ‘Yotes were playing physical hockey, winning races to loose pucks, sustaining severe offensive pressure, and launching good shots on net.
The ‘Yotes steady attack was matched by Anderson’s spectacular goaltending. He made one save after another, preventing the Coyotes from scoring, and the Avs managed to escape to the locker room at intermission with the 1-1 tie still in-tact.
The Avs Ryan O’Reilly kicked off a third period penalty-fest with two consecutive penalties, presenting the Coyotes with almost four straight minutes of power play time and keeping the Avs defense on its heels. As they have done for much of the season, the Avs’ penalty-kill team did a great job of skating aggressively and clearing the puck, and both penalties were extinguished with ease.
Through the incessant penalties (nine altogether), the third period action went back-and-forth, with each team bringing pressure and delivering good shots on goal. However, the goaltending lessons continued as Anderson and Bryzgalov took turns making great saves to keep the game deadlocked.
Then with six minutes left to play, the Avs launched its offense, slapped the puck around the zone, and a well-positioned Duchene redirected a slap shot by Brett Clark past Bryzgalov and into the net.
“Clarky took a great shot” said Duchene. “I was just able to get my stick on it, so a lot of luck was involved.”
It was Duchene’s second goal of the night, and it couldn’t have come at a better time as it put the Avs up 2-1 with just 4:16 remaining in the game.
Just when the game seemed to be heading towards a nail-biting finish, the tension was cracked by back-to-back Coyote penalties beneath the 2:00 minute mark. With two men in the penalty box, even a pulled goalie could not get the ‘Yotes an advantage, and the Avs’ defense was able to easily clear the puck and secure the victory.
“It’s great to win like that,” said Avs goaltender Craig Anderson, who had 33 saves and withstood rapid fire to keep the game tied at 1 throughout the second and third periods. “It’s just a matter of trusting my teammates to clean up some of the rebounds and take away back-door passes. For me, I was trying to control my rebounds as best as I could.”
The offensive star of the game was rookie sensation Matt Duchene who added another multi-goal game to his stats Friday night. Duchene leads the team with five multi-goal games. Duchene also leads all NHL rookies with 42 points and 20 goals.
Duchene’s second goal of the night won the game and got him to the heavily coveted 20-goal milestone, a huge achievement for the 19-year old rookie who started the season on shaky skates.
“It’s pretty humbling to be able to do that,” said Duchene, when asked about his 20 goals. “A big deal’s made of it, but I just feel so grateful to have the opportunity to play here and to have such great teammates. Most of the credit goes to them for sure.”
“I’m not surprised by Matty anymore,” said Avalanche head coach Joe Sacco. “He’s been through a lot of situations, and he’s a guy we’re all counting on for production.”
The win was an important one for the Avs on many levels. They defeated a very good playoff-bound opponent, and they proved that they can overcome pressure to win the close ones, as the game-winning shot came with fewer than five minutes remaining.
More importantly though, the win proved that the Avs can overcome adversity, for they were outplayed for much of the game and yet still fought hard, dug deep, and found a way to win.
“That’s exactly what we thought it would be,” said Sacco, “a hard, grinding game; a low scoring affair with tight checking and not a lot of room to make plays. That game was like a playoff game. That’s the type of game we’ll see in the playoffs if we’re fortunate enough to get in, and so it was a good test for our guys tonight.”
The Avs have one more game before they get to relax and ice their wounds during the Olympic break: Saturday night in LA against a steamin’ hot Kings team. Both the Avs and Kings are locked in with 76 points, and so to carry their momentum into the break, the Avs will clearly have to play at the top of their game Saturday night in LA.
“I’m looking forward to going home for the break,” said Duchene, “but we have a big game tomorrow night. Our goal is to win the last 5 games [heading into the break] and so hopefully we can do that.”