The surprise team of last year is rolling back into its groove on the ice.
The Colorado Avalanche's "core" had big shoes to fill following last season’s breakout year, but the Avs have once again challenged the odds and have recently displayed what made them the "surprise of the world of hockey" in 2013-14.
The Avalanche has won four of its last five games, making Sunday night’s 5-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning another triumph in the midst of a run-of-the-mill season.
The young guns on Colorado’s top forward lines came out by scoring goals in each period, as four of the Avs' five tallies were from players under the age of 25.
The three stars of the game were 24-year-olds Ryan O'Reilly (third star) and Matt Duchene (second star) and 19-year-old Nathan MacKinnon (first star).
All three youthful players contributed to the victory on home ice by adding points, but most notably was MacKinnon, who recorded his first career NHL hat trick.
“It’s tough to get a hat trick, especially nowadays in the NHL. I’m definitely very fortunate the puck was going in,” said MacKinnon. “The most important thing was to get the win, and if we lost the hat trick would be meaningless.”
MacKinnon became the second youngest player in franchise history to score a hat trick (19 years, 174 days), right behind Joe Sakic, who was 67 days younger than MacKinnon when he had his first of two three-goal contests with the Quebec Nordiques during the 1988-89 season.
“The pucks were just finding me tonight,” said MacKinnon. “The tip [on the second goal] was obviously not lucky, but things have to go right to get tips and things like that. Factor (O'Reilly) found me with a nice breakaway [on the third goal], so [I am] very fortunate to get a hat trick, [it’s] definitely a lot of fun. It was cool to see hats go on the ice. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a hat trick so it was good.”
With four assists in the last six games and with the addition of Sunday’s three-goal outing, MacKinnon now has 12 goals and 24 helpers on the season.
It was a night of several outstanding performances as not only did MacKinnon make history with his hat trick, but O’Reilly was a huge ‘Factor’ in making those goals possible. O’Reilly had assists on two of MacKinnon’s scores and has now registered five assists in the last five games. O’Reilly has 34 points with 10 goals and 24 assists this year.
“I saw Nate flying with speed,” O’Reilly said to NHL.com of MacKinnon's third goal versus the Bolts. “You have to give him the puck then, and he made a great play. It’s well deserved. He’s been working so hard, and he wasn’t getting the bounces.”
Barely coming down from the excitement of MacKinnon’s second goal, Colorado center Matt Duchene scored 29 seconds later and boosted the Avs lead to 3-1 early in the middle frame.
“When we get rolling, we all love to play offense in here,” said Duchene. “We all love to score and make plays and produce offensively. When we get on the right side of that, it is great to see. Keep going like that.”
Duchene has scored three goals and four assists in the last seven games for the Avs and now has 16 goals and 22 assists on the season.
Points have been accumulating for Colorado ever since a 6-3 loss on Feb. 12 to the New York Rangers, when 22-year-old Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog began his five-game goal streak. Landeskog added an assist on MacKinnon’s first period goal on Sunday—extending his point streak to six games—and now has 38 points with 15 goals and 23 assists this year.
Landeskog is tied with veteran winger Alex Tanguay, who scored Colorado's final goal against Tampa Bay, for the longest point streak by an Avalanche player this season. Tanguay tallied four goals and two assists during his stretch from Oct. 16-28.
Despite a 4-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings last Wednesday when the Avs outshot the Kings 43-26, the Colorado Avalanche has racked up 19 goals in the past five games, averaging 3.8 per contest. Colorado is six points out of a wild card position in the playoffs and isn’t planning on slowing down anytime soon.
“We are rolling right now,” Duchene said. “I think we are playing some good hockey. It would have been nice a little while ago to win one of those three that we lost in a row, but we’ve recovered well from it since. We are doing a lot of good things out there. We are getting good goaltending. Our defense has been playing well. Our power play is dangerous now. We are a dangerous hockey team.”