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Graves Becoming Reliable Defender

Avalanche defenseman leads NHL in plus/minus rating

by Ron Knabenbauer @RonKnab / ColoradoAvalanche.com

Throughout the Colorado Avalanche's bout with injuries during the first two months of the season, different players have stepped up on any given night to help the club climb the Western Conference standings.

On Monday against the Calgary Flames, it was defenseman Ryan Graves' turn.

Graves contributed on the Avalanche's first two tallies (goal and assist) of the game and finished with a plus-3 rating in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Flames at Pepsi Center. His plus-3 rating in the contest matched a career high and now gives him a plus-22 mark on the season, taking over the league lead in the category.

For the team, the defeat ended Colorado's six-game winning streak, but the Avs are still 11-3-1 in their last 15 games and rank in second place in the conference with 41 points (19-8-3).

"We'll take the point and run," Avs head coach Jared Bednar said afterward. "It's a tough game coming back from a week road trip--three tough games, all big wins--coming in playing a hungry team that is on top of their game winning four in a row. We come in and we looked like we had a good start and then we just looked sluggish. Sometimes you get those games, and you have to find a way to battle."

Colorado's recent injury bug hit another defensemen in the club's previous game on Saturday with Cale Makar suffering a lower-body injury, his first ailment of his professional career. The D-man that has produced a rookie-leading 28 points this year is listed as day-to-day and could return later on in the Avs' three-game homestand, but the ailment has given an increase opportunity for the team's other rear guards.

Video: Ryan Graves talks after the overtime loss to Calgary

Nikita Zadorov played a game-high 25:10 versus Calgary, while Samuel Girard and Calle Rosen each saw an increase in time on the power play, skating 2:20 and 1:40, respectively. In addition to his points, Graves finished with a full stat line as he added three shots on goal, eight total shot attempts, a hit, a takeaway and a block in 21:33 of ice time.

"We've had [Erik Johnson] out for a little bit, who is a huge part of our backend. And obviously Cale is a big part, especially on the power play, but we've got guys that can step in," Graves said. "G stepped into the first unit and then Rosy stepped in the second unit. We're confident in our depth, and as you see, when we turn it on we're still a good team regardless who is out of the lineup."

The game marked Graves' second multi-point effort of the season--and of his career--as he registered a goal and two assists on Nov. 7 versus the Nashville Predators.

"He's getting better and better at moving the puck out of our zone, and he's finding spots to jump in and be a part of our offense," Bednar said of the Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, native that has only played in 55 career NHL games. "Whether that is just blasting pucks from the blue line or jumping up as a third or fourth guy on the rush, like he did on that first goal."

Video: CGY@COL: Graves nets goal with stellar concentration

Graves was paired with Ian Cole, who also finished as a plus-3, for much of the game, but he looked a lot like Makar, his former defensive partner, as he opened the game's scoring.

On a rush up the ice, Graves flew down the left-wing side, took a pass from Joonas Donskoi and then one-touched a shot short-side just 4:32 after the opening faceoff.

"It was a 3-on-2. I was kind of fishing, supporting the rush a little bit," Graves said of his fifth tally of the year. "Lucky bounce over the guy's stick, and I just whacked at it. Fortunate."

He now has six points (three goals, three assists) in the last seven games and 12 points on the year, already setting new career highs in all three scoring categories. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound blueliner has appeared in 29 of the team's 30 games this season and has become a reliable skater for Bednar on the backend.

"He's been contributing all over the place," the Avalanche coach said. "He's a much improved player from when we got him last year. Hopefully he can continue to grow because he's a big part of our team."

GETTING ANGRY

Nathan MacKinnon had a goal and an assist in the third period to lead the Avs' comeback and help the team erase a 4-2 deficit.

"It looked to me like MacK got pissed off in the final 17 minutes and started to really work and get after the game," Bednar said postgame. "I thought he dominated the last 17 minutes. I was double-shifting him because he was buzzing, and he ends up being a part of two big goals for us."

MacKinnon scored at 3:59 of the third frame to get Colorado within one score and then sent a cross-ice pass to Donskoi that resulted in a top-shelf tally to knot the game for the third time on the night.

Video: CGY@COL: MacKinnon fires wrister from the circle

"We've seen it many times this year when the team needs a spark, he steps up and finds a way to score a goal and get better," Donskoi said. "He was good in the third, for sure."

The Avs center now has 47 points (19 goals, 28 assists) on the year, ranking third in the NHL. His two-point performance was his 14th multi-point outing of the season, tied with Edmonton's Connor McDavid and Boston's Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak for the second-most in the league. Only Edmonton's Leon Draisaitl (16) has more.

THE NI-CHU-CHU EXPRESS

Valeri Nichushkin continued his scoring stretch by tallying his fifth goal and sixth point in the last eight games.

He buried a rebound in front of goalie David Rittich while falling to the ice and then gave a huge fist pump when he finally got to his feet, celebrating his third marker in the last four contests.

Video: CGY@COL: Nichushkin beats Rittich from in tight

Nichushkin is in his first season with the Avs after signing with the club as a free agent on Aug. 19. He had 10 assists in 56 games last year with the Dallas Stars.

MY NAME IS JOONAS

With the bout of injuries that the Avalanche has faced this season, one player that has picked up some of the offensive slack is one of the team's newest.

Joonas Donskoi, who signed a four-year contract as a free agent on July 1, ranks third on the team in scoring with 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists) after registering a goal and an assist against the Flames. He now has nine points (four goals, four assists) in the last five contests and 19 points (eight goals, 11 assists) in the past 15 games.

Video: Joonas Donskoi discusses the game versus the Flames

The Flames seem to bring out the best in Donskoi, as the Finn has 20 points (11 goals, nine assists) in 18 career contests against the team from Calgary, the opponent he's scored the most against. Donskoi finished this year's season series against the Flames with three goals and two assists in three games.

MORE POSTGAME NOTES

The Avalanche wrapped up its three-game season series against the Flames, finishing 2-0-1 against Calgary. The loss snapped a six-game winning streak against the Flames going back to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Colorado extended its point streak to seven games, one game short of its season-long streak (7-0-1 from Oct. 3-19).

The Avs are now 9-3-2 on home ice in 2019-20. Colorado is 14-3-2 over its last 19 regular-season home games and 18-4-2 in its last 24 at Pepsi Center with the 2019 playoffs included.

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