Avalanche battling for first in the Central Division


After what felt like an eternity, the Avalanche finally took to the ice again in a five-game road trip that, despite a blip, was largely successful.

They fell to the Philadelphia Flyers 6-3, in what wasn’t the most encouraging return. However, the fundamentals of that game were there, and it can be an easy write-off to rust from the break. I went into that game anticipating a loss, as the Flyers had played the night before. They had the advantage of an extra game to get back into playing and were likely hungry for a home-ice win after falling to the Penguins on the road.

The next four games on the trip were a showcase of skill and of the intelligence of the off-season acquisitions for the Avs. Each game played out differently, but they came out on top in all of them – which is exactly what a playoff-contending team needs to do. There aren’t going to be any easy wins down this next stretch.

The game in Buffalo was, in a word, a blowout. The Avalanche won 6-1, with the second line deciding it was their night to show off what they’re capable of. The theme for this season has been depth scoring, but this road trip proved yet again that the key components in a team aren’t always the top line. That storyline followed through to the 4-1 win over the Senators, with the top line only contributing one assist.

The 2-1 win against the Blue Jackets marked an exciting development for the club, as it was the first time this season that the Avs managed to win after trailing going into the third period. The level of determination and push they showed late in the third period is encouraging going into the playoff push and beyond. And, finally, the 3-2 win against the Wild had the team fighting for a messy victory through a chippy game, plagued by minor injuries to André Burakovsky, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Nazem Kadri.

Standouts and takeaways

Let’s talk goaltending, first, as it’s been on my mind for these last four games. The Flyers game was not Philipp Grubauer’s best, as he allowed six past him. The guys on the ice in front of him weren’t playing a defensive game whatsoever, but you do rely on the goalie to make those crucial stops. The goaltender questions from before the break were coming back – Was Grubauer going to be enough going into the playoffs?

He answered back. In his next three starts, he only allowed one goal per game. While one of those may have been soft, it’s hard to complain when he was locked in for the rest of the game. We saw him tighten things up in the playoffs run last season and can only hope he continues to do the same now.

Pavel Francouz allowed two goals in the game he started, but he also made the high-pressure stops that he needed to. If Grubauer continues this stretch of play, I don’t expect to see the two playing tandem, but Francouz remains a solid backup. With the number of games the Avs are playing these next two months, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see more of him.

Now, onto the aforementioned depth scoring. With the exception of Nathan MacKinnon, the top line wasn’t at its best during this stretch and the rest of the team stepped up. The second line stands out especially, seeing as they combined for three of the six goals against the Sabres and assisted on a fourth. After a stretch of iffy games from Burakovsky, he had a four-point night against Buffalo and broke his personal scoring record. He now sits at 40 points, with his previous record falling at 38. Valeri Nichushkin and Kadri both netted two goals during the trip.

Aside from Burakovsky setting a new career-high, Cale Makar also had a successful road trip. He became the first rookie to hit the 40 point mark this season during the game against the Senators. Things remain tight between him and Quinn Hughes in the race for the Calder. Regardless of the eventual outcome of that, the Avalanche are still lucky to have his talent on the team.

So what’s next?

The Avalanche have a five-game home stretch coming up, which is then followed by an insane schedule in March, with a game every two days. There isn’t a lot of time for rest, but there also isn’t a lot of time for the guys to get rusty. Barring any meltdown, playoffs seem to be a sure bet. The race now is for the top of the Central Division, as the Avalanche are three points behind the Blues with two games in-hand.

In basic terms, the Avalanche need to keep winning. They need to keep winning the way that they did over this road-trip – Fighting through any type of game thrown their way.

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