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Strong Neutral-Zone Game Bringing Avs Wins

by Ryan Boulding / Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche is looking to continue its recent stretch of tight, solid play tonight as it takes on the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins at Pepsi Center.

The Avs are 5-3 in their last eight contests, and nearly all of them—save for Saturday’s 3-0 loss at the Minnesota Wild—have ultimately been decided by one goal, with the exception of three that had empty-net tallies.

Colorado’s last three wins alone have come with a 2-1 final score, speaking to the Avalanche’s defensive abilities of late. The club wants to carry that over again against a potent Penguins squad.

“We just want to kind of play the same way,” Cody McLeod said following Wednesday’s morning skate. “We know they’ve got some good skill up front over there, so we’re going to have to slow them down, be physical on them, and make it a long night for them.”

Part of the Avs’ success has come from a strong neutral-zone strategy that quenches speed and inhibits zone entries for opposing teams. When asked what the club does to conquer that area of the ice, forward Blake Comeau said that communication plays a big part.

“I think we’re talking. I think everyone’s more familiar with what we’re doing now, and we’re not really thinking about it as much as it’s just coming natural,” he said. “At the start of the year, we were giving up a lot of shots, and that was tough on our goaltenders—obviously, any time you’re giving up 35-plus shots. So we’ve done a better job at limiting teams’ shots.

“We’ve just all made a big commitment to playing better defensively, and we’ve been winning more games because of it.”

This kind of renewed fervor in the middle of the ice has also provided positive results in the defensive end as well.

“I think we’re closing quicker in the D-zone, not allowing the other team to skate around as freely with the puck,” rear guard Nate Guenin said of the adjustments made to help keep games tight. “On loose pucks, guys are closing [and] other guys are supporting them. So that’s enabled us to break out of the zone pretty well.”

“I think we’re making better puck decisions,” Comeau added. “There [were] times at the start of the year where we would have turnovers where we wouldn’t make a smart play and they’d be in the back of our net. I feel like as the season goes on, it becomes more and more tight checking. Teams get more familiar with the systems. The playoff race gets tighter. So we’re going to have to be on the right side of those 2-1, 1-0 games. Obviously, [Semyon Varlamov] has played outstanding for us lately, and we’re getting some key goals at key moments. All of those things are going to be important for us moving forward.”

This gritty, resolute and fundamentally determined strategy is something the players said they’ll use to try and top the Penguins in tonight’s rematch against the Eastern Conference club. The two teams already met once this season, with Pittsburgh skating away to a 4-3 victory.

“They’ve got a high-powered offense. They’ve got some guys that can put the puck in the net, and that comes back to us taking care of the puck tonight,” Comeau said. “I played with all those guys last year. They’ve got some talented forwards, and we’re going to have to get around the net too. [Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury] is a great goaltender; if he sees the puck, he’s going to stop it. So we’ve got to get bodies in front of his eyes and try to get those second and third chances.”

“We had a big win last game, but we’ve got to build off it and get ready for a big one tonight,” McLeod added.

The match will only be Colorado’s 12th at home—the team is in the midst of a stretch featuring 18-of-25 games on the road. After a tough segment of contests at Pepsi Center to start the season, the Avs are focused on playing well in front of the friendly crowd in Denver.

“It’s part of the schedule. We’ve got to play all 82, so we’ve got to take care of our home games. We’ve won two in a row at home here, so we’ve got to build off that and keep it going,” McLeod said. “It’s easier to play in front of a packed building when there’s a lot of energy in it, and hopefully we’ve got a good crowd tonight. It’s a big two points on the line, so the boys will be hungry.”

Colorado is 4-6-1 at home and 8-9-0 on the road.

“We had a bit of a slow start at the start of the year. I feel like we’re moving in the right direction,” Comeau said. “Our schedule the last month has been crazy. I feel like we’ve been on the road the whole time. Like I said, we’ve been playing a lot better lately. We’re starting to move up the standings slowly, and we’ve just got to keep going.”


ROLLING WITH RETO

Backup netminder Reto Berra is getting the start in net for the Avs tonight, and the decision is based on the upcoming slate of in-division contests, according to head coach Patrick Roy.

“We play three in four [days] within our division,” Roy said, outlining his goaltending plans. “Pittsburgh’s not in our conference. It’s not a four-point game for us, and Reto’s been phenomenal for us. He played really well against Jersey [in the] 2-1 win. He deserves to play.

“Varly was really good in New York. He was outstanding in Minny in that loss because it could have been more ugly than it was, and then he was really good again. But I made my decision way before the game against Minny. It was clear in my mind, I was going to go with Reto. I think Varly will play the first game in Nashville ,and we’ll go from there.”

Berra is 5-7-0 with a 2.26 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage.


MARTINSEN STICKING AROUND

After being a healthy scratch for Saturday night’s matchup with the Minnesota Wild, Norwegian forward Andreas Martinsen will be playing in his second straight game and 13th of the 2015-16 campaign when he takes the ice tonight against Pittsburgh.

“I try to bring some physicality to the team and go out there and just play hard every shift,” he said of what has kept him with the club since his recall on Nov. 8. “I felt like I did a good job with that last game, and now we get a new chance tonight. So, I just got to keep doing that.”

With a few games under his belt, Martinsen admitted that he’s starting to relax and feel more comfortable with the team and on the ice.

“Obviously, the first couple days you’re always on your toes. You’re waiting for that message to get sent back down, but now I’ve been up here for a while,” he said. “You kind of relax a little bit more, but still you have it in the back of your head that it can be over any time. So you’ve just got to go out there and try to play every game like it’s your last game and just work hard and don’t give the guys up there any chance to send you down.

“I think it’s mostly that I try to relax more and try to be more confident and [know] that I can actually make some plays out there and not just… be scared every time you’re out there. But obviously, it’s fast out there and you’ve got to be quick, and you’ve got to make quick choices and quick plays with the puck. If not, they’re coming, and it’ll be a goal against. I’m just trying to play smart and with low risk and play hard.”

Martinsen spent Monday’s game versus the Wild playing wing alongside Comeau and center Carl Soderberg, a combination that Roy said he intends to continue using tonight.

“I like Martinsen with Soderberg and Comeau. It’s a big line,” Roy said. “They protect the puck well. I thought they had a really good game together against Minny [on Monday]. I’m going to keep them together.”

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