So maybe Colorado has some experimenting to do with its second, third and fourth lines. Maybe the penalty kill needs intense self-evaluation. Maybe the Avalanche lacks depth.
Here’s something that might sound shallow: Who cares with star players like these?
It became tempting to wonder that for a brief stretch Wednesday night at Ball Arena. On the same day Avs coach Jared Bednar made sweeping changes to his forward lines and announced a captain’s absence that will reverberate most noticeably in Colorado’s back six, the top line patched the problems with a swift kick to the jaws of the Winnipeg Jets.
Mikko Rantanen stole the show with his forechecking, goal-scoring (two of them) and eye for the timely pass. It took the Avalanche 37 seconds late in the second period to erase a 3-1 deficit, and with it all memory of the quiet start that felt emblematic of the 2022-23 season so far.
But Colorado allowed goals while playing short-handed, at four-on-four and three-on-three, the last of which cemented a 4-3 overtime loss to the division-rival Jets. Colorado (2-2) faces Seattle at home on Friday before embarking on a six-game road trip.
“They’re a deep team, especially their forward group,” Bednar said. “And to me, we weren’t skating. We weren’t engaged enough to start.”
Bednar added Martin Kaut, Anton Blidh and Jayson Megna to the NHL roster in the buildup to this fourth game. Kaut in particular was thrown into the fire, inserted into a new-look second line with J.T. Compher at center and Valeri Nichushkin remaining in the other wing spot. Bednar was happy with Kaut’s performance, saying he “passed the test.”
The crowd at Ball Arena believed Kaut had drawn a roughing penalty 13 minutes into the first period when he fell to the ice in the offensive zone, creating a whistle. Instead, he was assessed a matching minor with Winnipeg’s Cole Perfetti. The Avs rolled out their best four-on-four lineup — Nathan MacKinnon, Rantanen, Cale Makar and Devon Toews, who had X-Rays taken for a potential injury after the game — but they were caught flat-footed within 30 seconds by a Winnipeg rush, ending in a clean centering pass to an open Neal Pionk. He finished with a one-timer.
That was the first even-strength goal of the season allowed by Alexandar Georgiev, Colorado’s trade acquisition goalkeeping gamble. He kept Colorado in the game after falling behind 2-0 at first intermission, but Winnipeg had started the scoring with a power play goal stemming from an overzealous attack by Colorado’s Logan O’Connor and Josh Manson.
The Avs’ penalty kill has allowed seven goals on 14 opponent power plays. That has been the prevailing tale of Colorado’s intermittently uninspiring start to its title defense.
“I think they were skating faster, faster on the loose pucks, just winning battles,” Rantanen said. “We were just not moving as we should, and we did more in the second and third. So when you don’t skate, our biggest strength is skating. We didn’t do it in the first.”
Compher, meanwhile, was in the No. 2 center position for the first time this season in a switch with Alex Newhook, the 21-year-old trying to prove himself worthy of the job by the trade deadline. Bednar said Newhook skated well, but he made bad decisions with the puck and still hasn’t recorded a point.
By the end of the second, Bednar had reverted to a more conventional second line centered by Newhook. He was back alongside Valeri Nichushkin and Evan Rodrigues.
“I was mixing it back and forth quite a bit,” Bednar said, “because we weren’t getting anything going except for the top line.”
Within an hour of the game ending, Blidh and Megna were reassigned to the Avalanche’s AHL affiliate in Loveland. Onto the next experiment.
The top line kept Colorado breathing. MacKinnon assisted a Rantanen goal, and Rantanen followed suit by setting up Nichushkin for a game-tying shot near the end of the second.
It was a period featuring two remarkable shifts by the stars, both ending in Rantanen’s clean looks at the net.
A scoreless third period quieted the crowd once more. And it only took Winnipeg 31 seconds of three-on-three hockey to get another goal past Georgiev, even with MacKinnon, Rantanen and Makar on the ice. Pionk blasted the shot by for his second goal, an emphatic winner.
Suddenly the memories of those depth flaws were a little more crisp again.