LAS VEGAS - This increasingly frustrating Avalanche team continues to be a total enigma from period to period, not even game to game anymore. Following their intense seesaw battle in Arizona last week, Colorado and Vegas took to the ice to put on a dazzling display of skill and speed in the first period before Vegas put the vice grip on Colorado's speed and sapped them of all life.
Vegas slowly took over the game and what was a 1-1 game for the majority of the contest finally shook loose into a 2-1 win for the Golden Knights as a soft Brandon Pirri wrister from just inside the blueline beat Philipp Grubauer, who was otherwise spectacular tonight, halfway through the third period.
It was similar to the game-winning goal from the Arizona game where what looked like a harmless puck on net somehow found its way through traffic and into the net. It's a brutal way for Colorado to lose but it wasn't like they didn't have their opportunities.
The Avs squandered away back-to-back two-minute power plays in the final six minutes of the game. Their failure to solve the Marc-Andre Fleury riddle continued today as the Knights netminder made a host of excellent saves down the stretch to keep the game tied.
Takeaways from the game
I don't really have a read on how the ice is regularly here in Vegas but the first period was rough for both teams. I counted four players who just fell down for no reason other than lost footing. Choppy ice early on might have had an impact on the score, too, as a bouncing puck just worked its way past Carl Soderberg in the shift immediately after Colorado's goal. If he gets hold of that puck, it may be a totally different game.
Watching this Vegas team lock down the Avs in period two after an eventful and high-event first period reminded me of the old Kings teams (the good ones). The way they force opposing teams into weak possessions through the neutral zone and then go to war in every single puck battle make them miserable to play against. Vegas plays a heavy game through their lineup and they augment that with a couple of high-end skill guys who can finish but mostly they are a team full of two-way cats who just wear down opposing teams.
Getting into his first NHL game, there was enough to like from Ryan Graves that should Zadorov's injury linger, Graves showed just enough upside to be worth sticking around in the lineup for another game or two. Clearly, the organization hasn't been thrilled with Mark Alt or Anton Lindholm otherwise they'd be here. Graves gives them a different look entirely from those two and might be a guy that gets to stick around just because he brings a little variety to the back end. He needs to play a smart, sound defensive game though or else he's going to be more of the same cannon fodder.
The Avs have learned over the years how to get through the speed bumps of Tyson Barrie's bad games but they aren't there with Sam Girard just yet. His role has expanded enough that he's become a key cog on the blueline at just 20-years-old and that's a great step forward for him. He wasn't very good tonight, though, and his puck-moving has to be much sharper against a team that plays with such a small margin of error like Vegas does. He's a better player than he showed this evening.
Not something that's been talked about much but I think the second line has really missed the steady presence of Colin Wilson. He wasn't anything special there and certainly miscast but when two young players riding the roller coaster every night were anchored with some stability, it did them a world of good. Now with Jost and Andrighetto yo-yo-ing between lines two and four, it's mass chaos there. It's very hard to get reliable production when you're spinning the wheel of fortune every night. I'd prefer to see the Jost Compher Kerfoot trio get continuous burn for a while but anybody questioning the value of Wilson can point to this group as an indicator of what he was bringing to the table.
I've said time and time again Colorado is only as good as its best players (a real revelation given this is true for basically every team in pro sports) and tonight those best players weren't good enough, especially at 5v5. They made themselves easy to defend and Nathan MacKinnon's general sloppy play was a huge driving force in holding back his teammates for getting anything going. I thought both Landeskog and Rantanen looked like they were just aching for their center to figure it out and get going. It didn't happen and they accomplished very little in the process.
Colorado's tendency to play too cute and try to be too perfect continues to bite them. They are a talented team but they're at their best when they combine their talent with a consistent mindset of keeping it simple. They make themselves significantly easier to defend trying to make the perfect play all the time. If it works, great, you see some of those skill explosions where they look unstoppable. But for every one of those nights, you have three of the ones like tonight where it isn't clicking and they need to adjust. They once again failed to do so tonight and here we are with their third consecutive loss.
Colorado returns home for another four-game homestand and their ineptitude over the last two weeks has turned this into an opportunity to finish the year strong into a series of very important points. Are they going to give back the strong November they had with a disastrous December or do they finish strong and even out the ship, salvaging their place in the standings along the way? These games suddenly have taken on much greater life.
That's cause for concern for Avs fans because this team right now is very tight. They were tight during morning skate when MacKinnon flung his stick into the stands out of frustration and continued his fit on the bench. They were tight during the game when little things consistently built into bigger problems. And they were tight in an angry postgame locker room where this group just seems totally miserable right now. The fun-loving group that enjoyed each other's company so much looks like a thing of the past, at least for now. Once they rediscover that joy, it's fair to expect other things to fall into place.
On a personal note that does it for me on the road for a bit. A lot of you have reached out with very kind words. Thanks for all the nice things y'all say. I see them and do appreciate all of them! I am very much looking forward to spending some time back at home, however.