The Colorado Avalanche penalty-kill units have been, well, special for the club during this second-half stretch of quality hockey.
It was no different on Friday night in Anaheim, as the Avs shut down all three man-advantage chances for the Ducks in a 3-2 overtime defeat.
Colorado has now killed off 30 of its last 31 penalties (96.7 percent) and 37 of its last 39 (94.8 percent), which has certainly contributed to the team’s 11-4-1 record over the last 16 games. The Avalanche is hanging around in the Western Conference playoff picture, and limiting opponent’s special teams has been a big reason why.
Colorado’s penalty kill went above and beyond the call of duty on Friday though, stepping up when the team was surging. After veteran forward Alex Tanguay was called for interfering with Anaheim defenseman Sami Vatanen, the Avs got a chance to extend their hard work the other direction.
After strong pressure on the Ducks, center Ryan O'Reilly forced Vatanen to turn the puck over at the Avalanche blue line. O’Reilly managed to shovel the biscuit up the ice, singlehandedly springing himself into a breakaway opportunity that ended with the rubber disc behind Anaheim goaltender Frederik Andersen for a 2-1 lead.
The Avs had gotten on the board 1:51 earlier in the final stanza when Matt Duchene picked the pocket of Ducks defender James Wisniewski, burning into the corner and feeding linemate Jarome Iginla to tie the game 1-1.
While O’Reilly’s play was huge in Colorado pushing the pace of the game, playing in the second of a back-to-back set on the road, it wasn’t the only man-advantage shutdown that was a game changer. The Avalanche weathered a multi-shot torrent early in the middle period, relying on the superb play of goaltender Semyon Varlamov to keep the score close, like he’s done so many times this season.
Often called the most important penalty killer on the team by head coach Patrick Roy, Varlamov has typically been the best player on the ice for the Avs. He entered the night having gone 6-0-0 in his last six starts while posting a 1.17 goals-against average and .963 save percentage in that span.
“With all of the injuries that we have, missing [Erik] Johnson, [Ryan] Wilson, [Nathan] MacKinnon, [Jamie] McGinn, [Patrick] Bordeleau, [Jesse] Winchester—just to name these guys. It just tells you how important the goaltender [has] become, and it is important for us to count on Varly every night,” said Roy.
That’s even more applicable given that Colorado has been playing playoff hockey since the start of the New Year. Every point comes at a premium for the team as it chases a wild card spot in the Western Conference, and that means the Avs must approach each game with a must-win attitude.
That was especially the case Friday, as Duchene revealed the only strategy for competing with the Pacific Division-leading Ducks.
“Play it like a playoff game. Play it like Game 7,” he said. “Every night is Game 7 for us right now.”
With Anaheim pushing for the top record in the NHL, Roy said he knew that the Ducks would also approach the matchup with a postseason mentality.
“When their coach says it’s a playoff hockey game, you know their team is going to start strong. I thought our guys did a good job,” said Roy. “They had a good pace when they started. They played hard. Maybe they caught us a bit off guard. We were a little bit surprised, but I thought we adjusted really well to them.”
Anaheim opened the scoring at 3:37 of the first period when Jiri Sekac rifled a shot into the top corner of the netting behind Varlamov, forcing the Avs to push the pace to get back into the game.
“Obviously, they came out hard,” said Duchene. “They’re a good home team.”
The Ducks scored for the third and final time just 1:25 into overtime, ending the game on a Corey Perry breakaway tally.
While the result wasn’t what Colorado was looking for, taking away three of a possible four points helps keep the team’s playoff dream alive. Even better was the drive and never-say-die attitude on display over the course of both games this week.
“I’m extremely proud of our players. They competed, even if [Anaheim] scored early in the first period. I thought we bounced back, and we finished strong,” said Roy. “We played against a team that has really high expectations, and I think it’s a good learning process for us at the same time. We’re learning to play those games, and I’m very happy. I’m very happy with the performance of the team. It’s an important point for us.”
RUNNING UP THAT HILL
With his third-period goal to kick off the scoring for the Avalanche, veteran forward Jarome Iginla continued to climb his way up the mountain that is the NHL annals. It seems as if every point the 37-year-old puts on the board is setting some sort of record, and Friday was no different.
Iginla’s goal, his team-leading 24th of the season, put him in sole possession of 41st place on the NHL’s all-time points list, just one point ahead of Jeremy Roenick and Larry Murphy (1,216). The marker was the Edmonton, Alberta native’s 584th career goal.
The right wing (1,381) is now one contest behind Trevor Linden (1,382) for 39th place on the league’s all-time games-played list as well. He sits third among active players behind Shane Doan (1,384) and Jaromir Jagr (1,539).