Grinning, Avalanche center Alexander Kerfoot and Gabe Landeskog looked up at the huge screens from the bench area, watching the replay of Kerfoot’s late third-period goal on the Pepsi Center’s center-ice scoreboard Wednesday night.
When they saw how it went in, they laughed and grinned at each other, as if they had just pulled off a fast one.
With Canadiens goalie Antti Niemi positioned against the post and giving up one side of the net, Kerfoot’s shot appeared to be headed slightly wide left, or to Niemi’s side. But the puck caromed off the inside of Niemi’s blocker and in.
It wasn’t the most artistic goal of Kerfoot’s career, but it gave the Avalanche a 2-0 lead with 3:02 remaining, and that’s the way it ended, thanks to Semyon Varlamov’s 44-save shutout, and Colorado now has won 10 in a row at home. (He was so good, the stats sheet originally listed him with 43 saves, but a 44th was added later.)
Kerfoot called it “a terrible shot,” then added: “I think I had the whole net there and put it the only place I couldn’t and it found a way to squeak in.”
It isn’t shocking that the 23-year-old rookie has stepped into the Avalanche lineup after finishing his full four-season career at Harvard. He had traveled across the continent to get to the Ivy League, since he’s from West Vancouver.
But it is a bit surprising that he has been this productive and even integral in the Avalanche’s rebound season. Now with 14 goals and 20 assists, he’s the Avalanche’s fourth-leading scorer, behind first-liners Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Landeskog.
With with MacKinnon missing his seventh consecutive game against the Canadiens with an upper body injury that seems to be spelled s-h-o-u-l-d-e-r, Kerfoot has been asked to step up — both to the top line, however it’s constructed at any given moment, and in the Avs’ forward hierarchy.
Rantanen’s absence for one game in the stretch led to additional shuffling, and it hasn’t been just a case of installing Kerfoot between Rantanen and Landeskog. Against the Canadiens, Kerfoot centered Landeskog and Colin Wilson and Rantanen was with J.T. Compher and Tyson Jost.
Kerfoot didn’t have a point in the first five games minus MacKinnon, but now has a goal in each of the past two. So, no, Kerfoot hasn’t been lighting it up during MacKinnon’s absence — he has a lot of company there, given the Avalanche’s struggles to score of late, especially on the power play — but he has continued to make the Avalanche’s pursuit of him last summer look like one of Joe Sakic’s better moves.
“I don’t look at it like I’m stepping in to replace him,” Kerfoot said of MacKinnon. “We’ve got to do it by committee, and we have other guys playing different roles. We’re going to be a different team without him. But we still have to find ways to win. We’re trying to make a playoff push here, and we can’t just wait around for him to get back in the lineup. We have to win games while he’s out.”
Kerfoot acknowledged it wasn’t one of his better overall games. “I turned over too many pucks tonight and you can’t do that at this level,” Kerfoot said.
He got no argument from Avalanche coach Jared Bednar.
“I’ve liked him,” Bednar said. “I think he’s still learning how to be that go-to guy. I didn’t love him tonight. I thought he was soft on the puck and turned it over too much, to be honest. But he finds a way to make plays. Even during the game, he made a great pass to put Wilson in on a 2-on-1 and ‘Wils’ puts one off the post and he finds a way to score at the end. That’s what he does. I just want to see him manage the puck a little better, consistently. which I think he’s done a good job of with Nathan out. I just didn’t love that line tonight, to be honest.”
The quirky part of it all is that it effectively worked out to be a trade involving two of the top players in the college game a year ago — Kerfoot and University of Denver defenseman Will Butcher, the Hobey Baker Award winner. For his first three seasons, Kerfoot was the playmaker for Jimmy Vesey, the 2016 Hobey Baker winner, before looking to score more as a senior.
The New Jersey Devils had drafted Kerfoot, the Avalanche had claimed Butcher. But in both cases, because they hadn’t signed by mid-August after their senior seasons, their draft rights lapsed, they became unrestricted free agents — and Kerfoot signed with the Avalanche, Butcher with the Devils. (Vesey had done the same thing the year before, choosing not to sign with the Predators and ending up agreeing to terms with the Rangers after becoming a free agent.)
There was considerable in-house organizational drama linked to the Avalanche’s fluctuating evaluation of Butcher as an NHL prospect; it wasn’t quite as complicated with the Devils and Kerfoot.
“I didn’t really think about signing about my junior year, mostly because of Harvard,” Kerfoot said. “I wanted to get my degree there. it wasn’t all about waiting for free agency. It was just about getting the degree for me.
“I had every intention of signing with New Jersey at the end of my (senior) season and I just wanted to wait it out until the summer to see what they did with free agency and the draft and stuff like that. They took quite a few forwards over the course of the summer and there was a little bit of a logjam there and so I wanted to see what was available in free agency and I ended up coming here.”
It has worked out, with Butcher playing well, most notably on the power play, for the Devils, and Kerfoot making his mark with the Avalanche.
“I didn’t have expectations coming in,” Kerfoot said. “My goal was to make the team and go from there. Opportunities came and it’s been a great ride so far and it’s been more than I could have imagined.”
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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries on subjects beyond the Avalanche are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
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