Nathan MacKinnon (COL - 29) skates up the ice.

What Scoring Machine?

You wouldn’t think you were watching the NHL’s premier offensive powerhouse observing the Colorado Avalanche playing in Southern California on Wednesday and Thursday nights. On Wednesday, it was a two-goal performance, including on empty-netter. On Thursday up the road in LA, it was a slow start, though the team had a 1-0 lead after one period against a team, it might be notable to say, that had allowed 12 goals in its last two games.

That despite the 4.19 goals-per-game the Avs came in averaging. And it’s not that the Kings didn’t have their chances to even it up. They had two power plays in period one. “Disastrous” would be the best adjective to describe their performance on these. One shot was the result of four minutes’ play.  Looking in from outside, it would seem that their strategy is entirely flawed. They typically start a wave, then drop the puck and expect one guy to carry it up and shift the momentum towards the defensive zone. Only problem is that one guy can’t generate that kind of energy. As a result, everyone ends up standing stationary at the defensive blueline, and the puck never gets in deep nor forces the defensive team onto their heels. So simple in words, but apparently so hard in implementation. Looking at the overhead camera angle, there was nobody within 20 feet of the front of the net.

The Kings had hopes coming in because their phenom Quinton Byfield was playing in his first NHL game this year. He had been hurt with an ankle fracture in the preseason, but had rehabbed and was 4-2-6 in the AHL Ontario offensive scheme. Last year, he played six NHL games, with no goals, for the Kings. On this his season debut night, his line had him with Brown and Grundstrom, himself coming off seven games lost due to Covid protocol. On the night, they would end up with six shots, though none figuring in the scoring.

Byfield was effective early, stealing a puck and taking it into the offensive zone, and later deflecting a shot and forcing Darcy Kuemper to make a blocker save. His name was called in all three periods, in fact. After the game, he said, “Last year, it was kind of weird, playing with all the people you grew up  watching almost.  [Now] I have a feeling that I can play with them and contribute. I just feel more comfortable.” He said he had some chances on the night and good offensive zone time.  He was particularly happy to be playing with Dustin Brown.

Byfield said he thought he might have his first goal at one point, “I could have lifted it a bit more–I had enough time,” he said. Next time, he’ll know.

The Avalanche scored their only goal of the first on the power play, though their PP has not been good of late, though still ninth in the league. It was a tip of a puck on the way in after MacKinnon had flung a wrist shot from the blueline.  The play was set up by  a  failed clear by Drew Doughty. Mikko Rantanen got the goal.

The Colorado side had not lost a game when leading after a period, 15-0-0 being their record in those circumstances. The Kings didn’t care. They pressured and had a long lead in shots before the second was barely  underway. But the Kings turned over another puck, and Kiefer Sherwood, just recalled from the AHL three games ago, did a turnaround slapper from the high slot near the circle’s top that beat Quick. The Kings’ Brendan Lemieux sat on the bench with a guilty look on his face after the goal. He  had given the puck away.

The score remained 2-0 for Colorado as the second period wound on, despite that the Kings had largely carried the play. Amongst the highlights were a rush up the right side where Kopitar shot for a rebound and Kuemper made a leg save.

Then things changed with a Kings’ PPG. Doughty sent a slapper in on net for a scramble in front of the crease where the Kings took repeated pokes at the puck. Iafallo came cruising in to recover the rebound of one of those, and he put it to Kopitar. The puck went off his skate, and he poked it in. That made things 2-1. This was Kopitar’s 13th of the season, the 359th of his career. Shortly  after, near halfway, the shots were Colorado 9, Los Angeles 28. They ended the forty minutes 34-15 in LA’s favor.

Near the end of the period, another relative newcomer, Samuel Fagemo, had a chance for his first goal when he got almost away from his check heading to the net. His shot was stopped. Colorado was 20-1-1 when leading after two. What would happen?

Early in period three, the Avalanche had the good fortune to score a third goal, this  one by Nicolas Aube-Kubel right out of the penalty box. He got a pass skating backwards through center and went on Quick, launching a wrist shot past a somewhat surprised goalie. The game was thus 3-1.

The Avs continued to march to the penalty box, Rantanen going off for tripping with 13:03 to go. But that Kings’ PP, well, there’s no helping it. This one was their fifth effort, and once again, they (though let’s not forget that their goal was a PPG) did not penetrate the zone very well.

Despite winning, the Avalanche never quite controlled the game, and they were rather well out-shot on the night, but they scored yet another goal, this one into an empty net with 1:35 left after a goalie pull with more than three minutes to go.

The game remained 4-1 despite Iafallo having a good chance coming out from behind the net on a stuff attempt. Colorado thus went to 24-4-3 in its last 31 games, though  the Kings outshot them 41-27. They are 10-0-1 in their last 11 games.

After the game, goalie Darcy Kuemper said this of  his team’s progress: “We have to continue building on this thing. We’ve got a long way to go to get to where we want to, but things are rolling right now.” These guys believe they’re going to contend for the Stanley Cup, and who knows—they might be rewriting Western Conference history along with rewriting the Avalanche record book.

 

Notes

The Kings were playing without their All-Star, Adrian Kempe, out in Covid Protocol.

The Kings now head out on a six-game road trip that happens in the East.

Brian Kennedy is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.