Over the 56-game regular season in 2021, the Avalanche had one of the stingiest defenses in the NHL. They often held the team to 20 shots or less, giving then starting goalie Philipp Grubauer every opportunity to post a shutout or surrender just one goal. It was about as good a winning recipe as you can have in a league that promotes scoring but is often led by the best defensive squads.
All that has been washed away in the first four games of the young 2021-22 season. The Avs surrendered 22 shots against the Florida Panthers in the second period, allowed two goals and never recovered. They went on to lose 4-1 on Thursday and have dropped to 1-3 after losing their third straight game.
They started the season strong against the Chicago Blackhawks on opening night. But since taking a 3-0 lead and having a 17-2 shot advantage in the first 10 minutes of the season, Colorado has struggled all around.
Over the past three games plus the final 50 minutes of opening night, the Avalanche have been outscored 17-8 and outshot 138-109.
That just isn’t going to cut it.
With Devon Toews still rehabbing from his offseason surgery, the Avs decided to finally put an end to the Samuel Girard and Cale Makar pairing. The unit combined for a minus-10 through four games while the second pair of Erik Johnson and rookie defenseman Bowen Byram were plus-7.
Avs coach Jared Bednar shook things up, elevating Byram to the top pair alongside Makar and playing Girard with Johnson — someone he’s accustomed to playing with over the years.
The shakeup didn’t pay early dividends as hoped. Makar struggled again. He was a minus-3 and had some notable turnovers that aren’t the norm for a player of his caliber. Makar didn’t play in the preseason and is still trying to find his game but the Avs need him to step up quickly. Especially considering Toews will likely need a feel-out period himself whenever he’s healthy.
Top line reunited
Since I brought up last season, I do have to mention that the Avs didn’t have the best start to that year either. They were 3-3 through six games despite playing four against California teams that were at the bottom of the league all year.
Thursday’s loss was the first time the top line of Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon have played together this season. And they looked dominant at times.
A couple of bounces here and there and it could’ve very well been a better game. There was a shift in the second period where MacKinnon and Rantanen both beat goalie Sergei Bobrovsky but hit the post.
But they’re still trying to work out the kinks in their game. MacKinnon finished the contest without a shot on goal.
Power play dud
This was a topic of conversation on Tuesday and it is once again. Colorado entered the game with a power-play that had capitalized on less than 10 percent of its opportunities. And it didn’t score on any of its three chances against the Panthers.
I can’t imagine a power play with this much firepower struggling all season. But there’s something that just seems to be missing. It feels like the Avs just don’t have the urgency on the man advantage that we’ve seen so often in recent years.
Some of the calls against the Avalanche were questionable. Most notably the goalie interference called on Rantanen when Bobrovsky was way out of his crease. And of course, the late boarding penalty taken by Landeskog.
The Avs needed to kill off the Rantanen minor but instead fell behind 2-1 and weren’t really in the game from that point on.
The Avs were 4-for-5 on the kill, which isn’t terrible. But whenever you fail to score on the power play, you need to do your best to keep the opposition from scoring on their man-advantage opportunities. Colorado lost the special teams battle 1-0. Had they scored once, or even twice on their chances, it’s an entirely different result.
Rantanen wears the ‘A’
It’s not the most pressing news, given the adversity the team has faced and the struggles they’ve endured, but Rantanen wore the ‘A’ for the Avalanche on Thursday
This is the first game in what feels like forever that the Avs have had all of Landeskog, MacKinnon and Johnson in the lineup — the three players that often represent the leadership core. But instead of Johnson donning the alternate captain letter, Rantanen wore it as he so often did last season when Johnson was hurt.
Bednar said the letters were not set in stone during training camp, entertaining the idea that Rantanen could continue to wear the ‘A.’ It’s unclear if this move is permanent, or if Johnson could also wear it sometimes, perhaps at home games. But it’s still worth mentioning because it further proves that the Avalanche are going to live and die with their top line.
Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen will be relied on to score and lead the team.
Aarif Deen is our Colorado Avalanche beat reporter. He covers Avs games live from Ball Arena and attends practices, media availabilities and other events pertaining to the Avs on the daily beat. He is also a co-host of Hockey Mountain High: Your go-to Avalanche Podcast. Deen joined Mile High Sports upon completion of his bachelor’s degree in journalism and master’s in business administration from the University of Michigan – Dearborn. Before Mile High Sports, Deen worked for the Michigan Wolverines Athletics Department as the assistant sports information director.
Follow him on Twitter @runwriteAarif