DENVER — Avalanche coach Jared Bednar is happy with his team’s results, but he knows there’s plenty for Colorado to clean up, too.
“It’s nowhere near as good as we can play,” he said after Colorado’s 6-4 win against Carolina on Saturday. “We’re going to keep pushing to get as quick as we can to get to the top of our game.”
The team has started games slow early in the season, and its defensive habits aren’t perfect yet. But the Avalanche are 5-0-0 and have shown plenty of reason for optimism. Their star players can go head-to-head with anyone in the league, and newly acquired depth pieces have fit in nicely.
Carolina gave Colorado a scare when it took a 3-2 lead in the second period Saturday, but from then on it was all Avalanche.
“We were missing assignments on the defensive side of it, giving up too many scoring chances, taking penalties,” Bednar said. “I think we finally woke up a little bit.”
And the woken-up Avalanche are a scary sight for opponents. They scored four goals in a row to end the period and take a commanding 6-3 lead. All of their goals came from different players.
Down injured goalie Frederik Andersen, center Sebastian Aho, winger Andrei Svechnikov and defenseman Brett Pesce, Carolina didn’t dress the roster that’s expected to make them a Stanley Cup contender. The Hurricanes aren’t playing like the defensively sound team they likely will be by season’s end. But scoring six times on a perennial playoff team speaks to the firepower on Colorado’s roster, and the goals coming from a variety of lines speaks to its depth.
Here are a few main takeaways from the Saturday evening showdown:
O’Connor makes history
Few players in the NHL are more potent right now than Logan O’Connor when the Avalanche are down a man. For the third consecutive game, he used his speed to create a breakaway and score a short-handed goal.
“It’s awesome,” said Fredrik Olofsson, one of O’Connor’s linemates and a fellow penalty killer. ‘But it’s nothing new. We see his speed every day. Well-deserved. That’s something guys are going to have to look out for. He’s got that pace to his game. He’ll keep you on your toes.”
Dave Reid holds the record for most consecutive games with a short-handed goal (four games, 1990). O’Connor joins a list of six others who have done it in three games in a row. Only Mike Richards (2009) and Joe Sakic (1998) have accomplished that in the past 30 years.
O’Connor is also only the third player since 1967-68 to start a season with three short-handed goals in his team’s first five games of the season. He could have another, too. He hit a crossbar on a short-handed rush against the Sharks in Colorado’s second game.
Penalty kill streak snaps
Perhaps Carolina’s first goal of the night should have been a sign of what was to come. Moments after a Hurricanes power play ended, Jesperi Kotkaniemi whacked a puck past Alexandar Georgiev. The Avalanche had successfully killed off an 18th consecutive penalty since the goal happened after Nathan MacKinnon left the box, but Kotkaniemi’s tally had essentially been a power play goal. O’Connor scored on Carolina’s next power play, but Georgiev had to do everything in his power to give Colorado a 19th successful kill. Early in the Carolina power play, he flew across his crease to stop a Michael Bunting shot, then stymied Bunting on multiple rebound attempts.
Brent Burns made sure the streak didn’t reach 20, beating Georgiev with a wrist shot on a second-period power play. Colorado’s 19 kills in a row was a team record to start the season. The Avalanche rebounded, though, by killing the final two Carolina power plays of the game.
In 2022-23, Colorado’s penalty kill struggled mightily to start the season. This year is the exact opposite.
“Last season we dug a hole early,” O’Connor said. “I’d say we weren’t trusting ourselves enough, and hesitancy in this league on the penalty kill will absolutely kill you. You’re going against the most skilled players in the world. So anytime you hesitate and you give them an extra split second, they’re going to make plays around you.”
The unit has trusted itself more this season, and the results have been good.
Stars thrive on power play
Colorado’s first goal of the night encapsulated what its power play was designed to do. Faceoff ace Ryan Johansen won a draw — he was 56 percent on the night — and Artturi Lehkonen won a battle after Cale Makar shot a puck off the boards. Then Nathan MacKinnon got to work.
MacKinnon seized Lehkonen’s pass, then faked out Jaccob Slavin, creating just enough room to whip a backdoor pass to Johansen. The puck bounced off Johansen’s skate and into the net.
“It was unreal,” O’Connor said.
“It was all Nate,” Johansen added. “Made a great move and I just posted up there on the back side and stayed in a spot where a rebound or if it got to me it’s an easy goal.”
MacKinnon’s magic was even more impressive because of who was defending him. Slavin is widely regarded as one of the best defensive defensemen in hockey and has appeared on Norris Trophy ballots in seven of his eight seasons. But MacKinnon’s speed and puck handling was too much to handle. As the goal horn sounded, Slavin raised his stick above his shoulder in apparent frustration.
The power play wasn’t done. Late in the second period, Cale Makar used his elite skating to enter the zone and dangle through two defenders. That gave him room to place a pass on a cutting Johansen’s stick. Pyotr Kochetkov made an initial save on Johansen’s shot, but Artturi Lehkonen waited in the crease and knocked the rebound into the net.
Apparently unsatisfied being the only Avalanche superstar without a highlight-reel power play moment, Mikko Rantanen made his mark on a power play shortly after Makar’s assist. He wristed a shot past Kochetkov for Colorado’s third power-play goal of the night.
“Our best players, they’re always going to give us a chance to win,” O’Connor said. “It’s just everyone else contributing in different ways to help ease the load a little bit.”
Bednar continues line experimentation
Despite tweaking lines throughout Colorado’s first four games, Bednar had kept MacKinnon and Rantanen together. That changed midway through the Carolina game. Colorado tweaked its lines to:
Artturi Lehkonen-Nathan MacKinnon-Valeri Nichushkin
Tomas Tatar-Ryan Johansen-Mikko Rantanen
Miles Wood–Ross Colton–Jonathan Drouin
Andrew Cogliano-Fredrik Olofsson-Logan O’Connor
Bednar’s reason was simple. MacKinnon and Rantanen weren’t generating good enough looks.
“You’ve got two of your best players, two of the best players in the world, and you’re not creating any chances,” the coach said. “You’ve got to try something else.”
It worked, as both players had goals following the change.
“They were great afterward,” Bednar said. “Sometimes it’s just a mental block and they need a little boost.”
(Photo: John Leyba / USA Today)