The roar of the crowd, the energy in the building, the feeling that things are slowly returning to normal. The Avalanche welcomed back their home fans to Ball Arena on Wednesday and what a treat they provided.
Colorado exploded for five goals in the first 7:31, led by the club’s fastest hat-trick in history from Joonas Donskoi (3:27), on its way to thumping the Arizona Coyotes 9-3 in front of a handful of frontline healthcare workers and season ticket holders.
The dominating win, combined with a loss for Vegas, also means the Avalanche are now first in the West Division, at least for tonight. The Golden Knights have a game in hand on Colorado and trail by one point (50-49) but will play Minnesota tomorrow.
“First place only counts when the season is over,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “But it certainly is something we’ve been working towards and for, trying to chase Vegas down after a little bit of a rocky start. It just shows that we’re going in the right direction. We talked about it just briefly the other day that it wasn’t going to be the be-all-end-all for us but we understand home ice is very important, especially if we’re putting fans back in.
Nearly everyone on the Avalanche pitched in. Donskoi’s four points led the way. But forwards Gabe Landeskog (two goals, three points), Mikko Rantanen (goal, three points), Andre Burakovsky (two goals) and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (goal, two points) accounted for the other goals while recording multiple points. Superstar Nathan MacKinnon and defenseman Sam Girard (two assists, each) also had multi-point efforts for the Avs, who extended their unbeaten streak to 12 games (10-0-2).
In all, 14 Colorado players recorded a point.
“We have a really good team, a lot of depth,” Burakovsky said. “Looking at the last couple games, every line is basically scoring. It’s not easy to come in here and play against us and we’re just going to keep this up.”
After taking in the energy of the pre-game ceremony, the Avs started the game with an extra pep in their step. MacKinnon drew an early penalty to send the Avs to the power play. But two minutes after that penalty expired, Donskoi scored his first — sending the fans into a frenzy — to kick things off.
Burakovsky followed that up with a one-timer feed from center Nazem Kadri 27 seconds later. The Coyotes answered back off the ensuing faceoff to cut the lead in half.
But Colorado had more for its fans.
The next three goals spanned just 1:55. And the crowd was finally given a live look-in of the type of hockey the Avs have played nearly the entire month.
The players even fed off the energy of the crowd, celebrating goals just a little harder thanks to the authentic noise only hockey-starved fans could provide.
“I think the fans had a huge effect,” Donskoi said. “Everybody was fired up. We came out to play and we had a good start.”
Donskoi’s hat-trick was the first in a single period for the Avalanche in 11 years. He scored the first, fourth and fifth goal of the outburst, capping the fastest five-goal clip in Avalanche history (3:27).
“What a game — what a first period — what a first seven-and-a-half minutes for him. That was pretty incredible to watch,” Landeskog said of Donskoi. “I even thought watching that first period from the bench he could’ve had a couple more.”
Donskoi’s second tally chased Arizona goalie Adin Hill. He was replaced by Ivan Prosvetov, who made his NHL debut and surrendered five goals on 28 shots. Colorado outshot the Coyotes 38-31.
For the Avs, goaltender Philipp Grubauer put an end to what has become the best performance of any month in his career. Grubauer made 28 saves, winning his NHL-most 22nd game and improving to 12-2-1 in March — the most wins the Avs have ever had in one month.
The game wasn’t entirely. The Avs took seven minor penalties. They outshot the Coyotes 17-1 midway through the first but three late penalties — one of which Arizona scored on — led to a 12-1 shot advantage for the Coyotes in the final eight minutes.
Colorado’s penalty kill entered the night second in the NHL (87.3 percent) and successfully killed five-of-six.
The final penalties called were the outcome of a tussle between MacKinnon and Arizona’s Conor Garland late in the third period. MacKinnon took exception to Garland’s physicality and the pair began to wrestle in the corner to the right of Prosvetov before Landeskog and other Coyotes players jumped in to help. MacKinnon tossed Garland’s helmet at him during the scrum, resulting in a double minor and a 10-minute misconduct.
Those 14 PIMs alone are more than the 12 MacKinnon had all of last season on his way to winning the Lady Byng Trophy.
“He might a little lighter in the wallet, maybe, but I would think that would be it,” Bednar said of the helmet toss.
Landeskog’s willingness to stick up for MacKinnon only proves how much this team believes in sticking up for one another and take a penalty when the physicality gets ramped up. Even if it involves two-thirds of your top line.
“Those two guys, they lead by example,” Donskoi said. “If somebody is getting beat up then the teammate is going to stand up for him. We’ve been on top of that lately.”
Donskoi, Landeskog climb the ranks: Donskoi’s hat-trick and Landeskog’s two goals increased their season totals to 15 and 14 goals, respectively — both of which are now top-30 in the NHL.
Alex Newhook signs: Colorado announced earlier Wednesday that 2019 first-round pick Alex Newhook has signed a three-year entry level deal. The former Boston College star was the 2019 NCAA D-1 Rookie of the Year.
He will report to the Colorado Eagles of the American Hockey League but has the ability to dress in six games for the Avalanche before burning the first year of his entry-level deal.