The Avs need to keep afloat in the push for a wild card spot in the Western Conference playoff picture, while the Rangers are hoping to keep their position in the East. After dropping the previous three contests, the Avalanche knows that it’s time to get back to the basics this evening in Denver.
“We’ve got to get back on our game. I think the last two games in particular were not good enough. We’ve lost three. At this point in the year, that’s unacceptable. We need to be better tonight,” said veteran defenseman Brad Stuart. “We need to come out and have a good push in the first period, and make sure we’re paying attention to the little details and making it a tough game for them. They’re on a road trip, and we want to make it as hard as we can for them to come in here and feel comfortable.”
Ugly, dirty, downright simple hockey, the kind of game you learn growing up, is how the Avs plan to play against the club from Madison Square Garden.
“Just getting back to the basics: getting that puck in deep, shooting the puck every chance you get and making sure you have a net presence,” Stuart said of his plan for success. “From there, our special teams have to be better. Both our penalty kill and power play have let us down recently. We need to make sure we are keying on those things too.”
Sometimes simplifying isn’t the only thing that needs to happen.
“You have to manage the game the right way. It starts all the way from your own end, breaking out, through the neutral zone. If you don’t have anything, get the puck in deep, win your battles to get the puck back, and then from there, you have to read and take what option you have,” said center John Mitchell. “Obviously, if you can feed somebody that’s right in the slot and get a good shot off, that’s the best case scenario. But if you don’t have that, you can pass it up to the ‘D’ for a little bit of an outlet or relief. If they can get a shot through with some traffic, that’s also a perfect world for us.”
The Avalanche is looking for an offensive spark to get going again here at home and the Rangers offer the perfect opportunity to kindle a new fire. With Henrik Lundqvist sidelined after taking a shot to the neck, New York has been relying on backup Cam Talbot between the pipes. A 27-year-old tender with much potential, Talbot has struggled of late, allowing three or more goals in each of his last three starts and posting a 1-1-1 record.
“There’s no real recipe for Talbot in net. He’s their backup goalie. He’s still a very good goaltender, but he’s given up some goals… in the past couple games,” said Mitchell. “I think this is an opportunity for our team to get 30-35-plus shots on net, and I think we’ll be happy with the result if we can get that many shots on goal.”
Talbot getting the nod for his fifth straight match doesn’t mean that goals will come easy, and, according to Ryan O'Reilly, it shouldn’t impact how the Avs go about preparing for the workload ahead.
“He’s a good goalie, and he knows what he’s doing in there. For us, it’s more an internal process to score goals. We have to figure it out ourselves,” he said. “We can’t rely on who we’re playing and what they give up. We have to go out and create chances every shift, and we have to be hard on the net and compete for each goal.”
Scoring won’t be the only thing the Avs will work on tonight against the Rangers, as solid defense will also be paramount against a squad with some offensively gifted forwards. Winger Rick Nash, for example, has blossomed after a rough previous season, netting 52 points (33 goals, 19 assists) in 52 games. Nash is tied with Alex Ovechkin for first in the league in goalscoring and will certainly be a player to keep an eye on. Add guys like Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Martin St. Louis to the mix, and Colorado’s defense will certainly have it’s work cut out.
“They’re a good team. They’re fast. They have a lot of speed. They’ve got Nash, who’s got 30-plus goals. He’s obviously a key guy for their team, so we’ve got to really be conscious of when he’s out on the ice,” said Mitchell. “These are their main offensive guys. You just have to play them hard, be physical with them and, like I said, just be conscious of when they’re out on the ice, know where they are.
“I know Nash, he tries to jump in behind defensemen and—I don’t want to say cherry pick but—he reads the play well where he can jump and get in on breakaways. I think we just have to watch that. At that point, we have to be smart in the neutral zone, try not to turn pucks over so that they can spring those kinds of guys.”
Stuart echoed the sentiment, knowing full well what to expect when the puck drops tonight.
“You’ve got to know where he is all the time, be aware if he’s on the ice. He’s got good speed, and he’s got the ability to sneak in behind you. That’s something we’ve got to be aware of as defensemen especially,” Stuart said. “Don’t let him get in behind you, and try to keep him to the outside as much as you can. He’s a big body. He’ll try to barrel his way to the net, but we’ve got to make sure we’re making it hard on him.”
The Rangers also rank 10th in the league on the man-advantage, tallying roughly 20 percent of the time when given the chance, which includes three goals on the last 12 tries. While the penalty kill has been a bright spot for the Avalanche this season, it will need to regain top form to keep New York off the board.
“I think for the penalty kill, it’s trying to outwork them, putting pressure on them to have to make great plays to get chances,” said Stuart. “We don’t want to give them easy looks at the net, easy rebounds or anything like that.”
That work extends to expertly clearing the puck down the ice and out of the Avalanche zone.
“I think we have to be a little bit better at clearing the puck. I think any opportunity that we get to battle and win it, we’ve got to get that puck out and put it a full 200 feet to make them go back. It makes their top players have to go back there and tires them out,” said O’Reilly. “On the power play, their skill players get confidence when they make plays. So if we can limit that as much as possible, and make sure we’re having a good forecheck where we’re not letting them enter the zone easy, it’s going to help provide confidence for us.”
With five of the next six games on the docket at Pepsi Center, Colorado will look to extend it’s burgeoning home record tonight at 7 p.m. MT.
“This is a big start to a home stretch that we have here,” said Mitchell. “I think it will be real important to come out and have a very strong game.”
400 AND COUNTING
Avalanche forward Ryan O’Reilly is set to play in his 400th career game tonight, a milestone that has come in the blink of an eye for the 24-year-old center.
“Four-hundred games definitely flies by, but I think it’s something that’s a good milestone and hopefully the first of many,” he said of the total. “I knew it was close. It’s an exciting thing. It’s amazing to see that I’ve played that many games. I can remember my rookie year, living with [Darcy] Tucker, playing on the team with [Adam] Foote, him and [Milan Hejduk] and all those guys. It’s amazing to see that.”
O’Reilly cracked the Colorado lineup as an 18-year-old, just months after being selected 33rd overall at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Looking back, the experience has been a whirlwind.
“I always dreamed of playing as early as I could, and to make the team at that age was an amazing thing. You go from just wanting to play an exhibition game to wanting to play in the regular season, and the next thing you know you want to stick there, get past the 10-game mark and stay here,” O’Reilly reflected. “Just the way things unfolded was amazing. It feels like yesterday. It’s amazing how quick it goes.”
He’s established himself as a solid two-way center, responsible on both sides of the puck and at both ends of the ice. He has 83 goals and 137 assists through his 399 games played, and constantly leads the NHL—or challenges the leader—for takeaways in a season, speaking to his abilities. Last season he took home the Lady Byng Trophy for being an example of the perfect mix of skill and sportsmanship—taking just one minor penalty in 80 games while also putting up 64 points (28 goals, 36 assists) is no easy feat.
“Obviously winning an award is something special. I take a lot of pride in it, but this year has been a little a frustrating. It’s not what I expected, but there’s still some time left to salvage this,” O’Reilly said.
On pace for many more games in the future, O’Reilly considered the type of player he’s become and, much like Brad Stuart—who recently hit a 1,000-game milestone—whether that is the type of player he needs to be.
“After last year, kind of starting to put the puck in the net more, and then this year definitely trying to put the puck in more, I think I know that, if I want to continue to stay in this league, I’ve got to be able to produce on offense a lot more. I think I’ve had tastes of it and realized that that’s the kind of player I need to be,” he said. “I need to provide. I definitely think I have some good qualities with my stick and playing defensively. I feel like I excel and play well in that area, and you always have to work on that. But offense is the big one that, if you can do that, will hopefully make for a long and successful career.”