With a depleted prospect pool, the Colorado Avalanche have turned to the NCAA in recent years, restocking their cupboard with older prospects who cost nothing to acquire. On Tuesday night, the Avalanche got goals from three different NCAA free agents on their way to a 7-4 win.
Logan O’Connor, Jason Polin, and Sam Malinski all scored goals, helping the Avalanche to a win over the lowly Ottawa Senators. Malinski continues to impress, as he added an assist and had another goal called off in the second period. It’s getting harder and harder with each passing day to send him back to the Colorado Eagles. Sam Girard, playing his ninth game since returning to the team, added three assists of his own, while Mikko Rantanen scored two goals.
Justus Annunen, making his first start of the season in the NHL, stopped 36 of the 40 shots sent his way for his third career victory.
The Avalanche made the interesting choice to not even dress Alexandar Georgiev. If you ask me, that’s the right call. The last time the team planned to give Georgiev a night off, he was forced to come back into the net because Ivan Prosvetov had a rough outing. By not dressing him, you guarantee a full night off.
This time, it wasn’t Prosvetov starting, but Justus Annunen, making his first appearance in an Avalanche uniform this season. Having just played 24 hours prior, Colorado was sloppy, which meant Annunen was tested early and often.
To his credit, Annunen played well. Colorado had a few turnovers and poor pinches that led to great chances for the Senators, and Annunen held his own. He stopped Brady Tkachuk on a mini-breakaway at one point, and Brannstrom on another good chance.
Ottawa did get the first powerplay of the game after a bit of a flukey play. Ross Colton was just trying to knock the puck out of mid-air, but accidentally got Ottawa’s goaltender, Mads Sogaard, under his helmet, which sent him to the box. It took only seconds for Ottawa to take advantage. Drake Batherson’s initial shot was blocked by Logan O’Connor, but he corralled the puck again and beat Annunen on the glove side, giving Ottawa the early lead.
38 seconds later, the Avalanche answered back. After a nice exchange between Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar, the best defenseman in the world was left all alone cutting towards the net. He hit Mikko Rantanen, who went down to a knee and choked up on his stick, for an easy tap-in goal, making it 1-1.
Ottawa owned most of the chances in the first period, but Annunen made sure the score stayed 1-1 into the intermission, stopping 14 shots in the opening session.
Period two was not as kind to Annunen, but to be fair, the team in front of him didn’t exactly make it easy. Just 1:21 into the period, Brady Tkachuk turned Nathan MacKinnon around along the boards. He cut to the middle, and his shot appeared to hit a body in front, hit Annunen’s shoulder, and then sat on the goal line behind the Avalanche netminder. Ridley Greig battled to push it over the goal line, giving Ottawa the lead.
For the second time this game, the Avalanche answered right back. Sam Malinski made a tremendous stretch pass to Fredrik Olofsson, who tapped it over to Polin. The 24 year old winger fired a quick wrist shot past Sogaard for his first career NHL goal. You never get tired of seeing those, but most importantly, it tied the game up.
The long change is always a factor in the second period, and Ottawa took advantage of Colorado getting stuck on a line change. A long stretch pass created a 3-on-2 for the Senators, and Greig had all the time in the world in the slot to fire the puck over Annunen’s shoulder, making it 3-2 in favor of the home team.
Four minutes later, Jake Sanderson snuck away from Jonathan Drouin, and with a quick move, also beat Annunen on the blocker side. Colorado needed something to change their momentum, and for a second, it looked like a young defenseman was going to provide them with a boost.
Sam Malinski, playing his 21st NHL game, decided he was going to do it all himself. With plenty of time and space, he skated the puck up the middle of the ice, crossed the blueline, and fired a wrist shot past Sogaard to cut the lead to one.
Or so the Avalanche thought.
Ottawa challenged the goal, and the replays showed Jonathan Drouin was pretty clearly offsides, so the goal was called back. A real shame, because it was a beautiful goal. Luckily, the superstars on the Avalanche can create something out of nothing in the blink of an eye, and that’s what they did to actually cut the lead to one.
Girard sent a long pass up the boards to MacKinnon, who quickly sent it across the ice to a streaking Rantanen. The big Finn fired a perfect wrist shot over Sogaard’s glove, making it 4-3. Colorado got a late powerplay in the second, but failed to take advantage, so the score stayed the same heading into the intermission.
If you remember last month in Denver, Ottawa blew a two goal lead to the Avalanche at Ball Arena, so what occurred in the third period is hardly a surprise.
Miles Wood, playing for the first time since Jan. 4, was noticeable early, but really made his presence felt four minutes into the third. A nice drop pass from Logan O’Connor found Wood in the high slot. He deked around the defender, cut to the net, and beat Sogaard on the blocker side, tying the game up at four. Colorado really missed Wood when he was out of the lineup, and he was a difference maker in his return.
A few minutes later, Cale Makar drew a tripping penalty on the Claude Girioux, sending the Avalanche to powerplay. On that powerplay, we witnessed something rare this season – the second unit chipping in. They usually don’t even get on the ice, but at 8:14, Sam Malinski got some redemption.
Sam Girard looked to hit Johansen on a give-and-go, but it slid back to Malinski at the point. The young defenseman used the Senators forwards as a screen, and beat Sogaard cleanly on the blocker side, giving Colorado their first lead of the game.
Four minutes later, that lead was extended, as the red-hot Logan O’Connor came in and beat Sogaard on the glove side. Devon Toews added a late empty netter, and Justus Annunen shut the door, giving the Avalanche the 7-4 victory.
On Thursday, the road trip continues, as the Avalanche will head to Boston for a rematch with the Bruins. The last time these two teams met, it was a tremendous game in Denver, and I expect more of the same this time. The big question for Colorado will be – does Artturi Lehkonen return to the lineup?