Days removed from a 5-2 loss at home to the Nashville Predators, Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy has opted to shuffle multiple positions in order to spark his club into pushing back into a playoff berth.
The first adjustment will have No. 1 netminder Semyon Varlamov returning to the net to start the contest. Varlamov has watched from the bench as 23-year-old backup Calvin Pickard played the last 156 minutes and 51 seconds.
“We knew he was going to play eventually,” Roy said of making the switch back to Varlamov. “I thought he had really good practices, and Picks played really well in those games. Now it’s time for Varly to step up.”
After that, Colorado’s bench manager will place Blake Comeau with former Arizona wing Mikkel Boedker and center Nathan MacKinnon. Team captain Gabriel Landeskog will skate alongside fellow Swede Carl Soderberg and wing Shawn Matthias.
“I’m going to make some small changes,” said Roy. “I’m going to put Comeau on the right side of MacKinnon and Boedker, and then I’m going to put Landeskog on the right side with Soderberg and Matthias. We’ll see how it goes.
“We feel that it’s going to bring more depth and take a bit less pressure on a line here and there to generate more offense. The thing that I really want to see us doing is winning those 2-1 games. It’s playoff hockey right now, and you have to be able to.”
While the other line combinations will remain the same, one last change is coming on the defensive end of the ice. Eric Gelinas, who has missed the previous two matches due to a minor back injury, will return to the lineup in a pairing with rookie Chris Bigras. Andrew Bodnarchuk will be a healthy scratch.
“He’s got a great shot. I’m sure [assistant coach Tim Army] is going to want to use him on the power play,” Roy said of the 6-foot-4, 215-pound rear guard, who has only had two morning skates to adapt to the Avalanche’s style of play. “Unfortunately, there’s urgency winning hockey games, and sometimes you’ve got to take those chances.
“I just want him to feel comfortable on the ice and play the type of hockey he’s capable of. I don’t want to put high expectations on him. I just want him to be himself and show what he can do.”
The focus for the Avs, starting with the Coyotes and running through the end of the season and beyond, will be on closing out games, particularly when the score is close.
Colorado is 21-5-2 when leading after the second period and 8-5-1 when tied after 40 minutes, but the club has gone 1-3 in it’s last four after surrendering three or more goals against in the final frame in each of the losses.
“It is a huge game for us, but you’re going to say that to me pretty much every day from now on,” said Roy. “They’re all going to be huge games, but at the same time we have to come here and be ready for these guys. We need to play some solid hockey for 60 minutes. We need to be better in our turnovers. Obviously, I feel that there’s too many.
“Looking at our last game, the first goal, the second goal and the third goal were all situations where we had the puck. We’re certainly going to have to be better. We’re going to have to be better with our gaps. I feel that we’re giving a lot of shots because of it, and we could cut down on those pretty easy.”
Better puck management is one thing that could stop the so-called third-period bleeding.
“We’re trying to limit the mistakes that we’ve been making lately. They seem to be costing us a lot, but if we can avoid those, I think we’ll be alright,” veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin said.
“The first period, we play really well. Second, we play well. Then in the third, we seem to just get behind the battles a little bit and not dig in as hard as we should,” Boedker added. “We’ve got to stick with it.
“We had a talk about that the other night, so I think tonight you’ll see a different third.”
Staying the pace, controlling the puck and cutting down on shots against will go a long way in helping the Avs scoop up valuable points as the season gets shorter.
“If we do a better job managing the puck in the third period and in the entire game, basically, and we’re better at gapping up from our ‘D,’ we should cut down on shots [against],” Roy said. “And our core is going to have to be dominant in that stretch. They’re the ones that should carry the team and are certainly going to have a major role to play if we’re going to make the playoffs or not.”
BOEDKER VS. ARIZONA
Boedker, acquired on Feb. 29 ahead of the NHL’s trade deadline embargo, will face his former club for the first time after spending his entire eight-year career with the Coyotes.
“I’m sure it will be a lot of fun,” the 26-year-old Danish forward said. “Obviously, you have a lot of battles with them in practice, but now it’s going to be for real and it’s going to be a lot of fun.
“I told them yesterday no cross checks, but we’ll see.”
Boedker has fit right in with the Avalanche, registering a goal and an assist in three games with the team.
“The transition coming here hasn’t been that hard, coming in and jumping in,” he said.
Roy admitted that he’s pleased with what he’s seen so far as well.
“I’m very happy with him, smart player,” said Roy. “He’s positioning himself really well on the ice. He scored a really nice goal against the [Florida] Panthers. Turned out to be an important goal for us. Seems to adapt very well to us. The structures are pretty much the same… but I think he’s been adapting really well.”
The 6-foot, 211-pound wing confessed that joining a new squad for the first time in years was a bit hard initially, but any reservations he had quickly gave way to exuberance.
“Slightly scary, I think,” he said of the unfamiliar surroundings. “You come into a whole new situation. New players you just know from playing against and that’s about it. I think the excitement kind of takes over, and it’s really exciting being in a playoff race. Every game matters. It’s been a lot of fun so far, and hopefully it continues out.”
With Arizona out of postseason contention, the opportunity to fight for the eighth and final seed is something he relishes.
“Playoffs is what it’s all about, and I think here the main focus is making the playoffs. It’s going to be a tight battle to the end against Minnesota,” Boedker said. “If we can catch them, it will be a tight race until the end. So it’s a lot of fun. Every game matters, every play matters, and that’s what you play for as a player.”
PENALTY KILLERS, INC.
The Colorado Avalanche penalty kill enters Monday’s match ranked 15th in the NHL with a 81.1-percent success rate. While an indication of the club’s overall body of work during the 2015-16 campaign, it doesn’t tell you how good the Avs have been in that area lately.
The team has killed off 16 consecutive penalties, two shy of matching their longest streak of the season (18), which they have done twice already. That’s 32 minutes of keeping man-advantage play quiet since Radim Vrbata scored in Colorado’s 5-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 21.
Even more impressive is that the Avs have killed 28 of the last 29 shorthanded situations dating back to Feb. 12 when Pavel Datsyuk scored a power-play goal.
“I didn't know that stat, but I knew we were doing better lately, so we’ve got to keep getting better at that,” Beauchemin said upon hearing the trend. “We’ve been solid on the breakouts and in-zone, so we’ve got to keep doing that. Our goalies are doing a great job as well. The goalie’s always the best penalty killer out there.”
A foundation for simple play, there is something that the even-strength game can take away from the man disadvantage.
“We play all four guys together,” said Beauchemin. “Lots of talk in the D-zone, especially when we want to press and when we want to be passive. Same thing 5-on-5, I think our forechecking game has been better lately. We get more offensive time, it’s just a matter of capitalizing on our chances.”
Special teams—on both sides of the puck—is more important than ever as the regular-season quickly closes and playoff positioning becomes solidified.
“As far as power play, it seems that every time we do score a goal, it gives us momentum for the team, so that’s a huge part of it as well,” Beauchemin added.
The Avs hope to continue their strong special-teams play—riding a 12th-ranked power play (19.2-percent success rate)—as they chase the Minnesota Wild for the final wild-card spot.
“Obviously, we all know where we are, and we check the score every day,” Beauchemin said. “We know they lost last night, so now we’re two points back with the same amount of games. We’ve got two games before they play their next one, so those two will be huge.”