They aren’t out of the weeds yet, not even close, but the Avalanche are beginning to show signs that they might be capable of emerging in time to squeeze into the playoffs.
They’ve won two of the past three games and gained a point in five of the past seven (2-2-3) following a disastrous 3-12-2 run that began Dec. 21 with a 2-1 loss to Chicago.
No one could have known at the time, but the Blackhawks have become one of Colorado’s fiercest competitors for eighth place in the Western Conference and the second wild card playoff position.
Chicago has gone 12-7-3 since that late December game to pull into a tie with Colorado; both have 59 points (the Avalanche have played one fewer game), one point behind Minnesota for the coveted playoff berth.
The teams will meet three more times, starting Friday in Chicago with back-to-back, home-and-home games March 23-24.
But, first things first. The Avalanche close out a three-game homestand Wednesday against Central Division-leading Winnipeg, the team they defeated last Thursday at the MTS Centre.
The Avalanche haven’t won two games in a row since a six-game winning streak from Nov. 18-28.
They knocked off Vegas 3-0 on Monday behind Semyon Varlamov’s
40-save effort, Andrew Agozzino’s
first NHL goal, and scrambled line combinations that featured all three members of the top line – Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon
and Mikko Rantanen
– playing on different lines for the first time this season.
“Like I said a couple days ago, this team never gives up,” Varlamov said following his second shutout of the season and 25th of his career. “We’re going to battle to the end. We just need to get on a winning streak and kind of help ourselves, collect the extra points.”
These were the new lines:
Alexander Kerfoot – Nathan MacKinnon -- Sven Andrighetto
Matt Nieto – Carl Soderberg – Mikko Rantanen
Gabriel Landeskog – Tyson Jost -- Matt Calvert
A.J. Greer -- Andrew Agozzino – J.T. Compher
“To this point in the year we hadn’t played MacK, Mikko and Landy apart on three different lines,” coach Jared Bednar
said. “We played them apart on two different lines, but we hadn’t separated all three. As a line they hadn’t been doing a whole bunch lately and created a lot offensively.
“I wanted to give MacK some speedy guys so they could help create off the rush, dart in and out of holes and have some skill and poise with the puck. I felt Soderberg, Nieto and Calvert playing together really is a hard-working line. I think Mikko needed a little bit of that in his game, so I gave him Soderberg and Nieto.
“I wanted to try and help Jost a little bit, D-zone, help him get into the offensive zone. Landy’s a real good 200-foot player and Calvert has been getting all these chances from his work and his skating and his intensity. The fourth line was pretty good too.”
The Avalanche will play three games before the NHL trading deadline next Monday – Wednesday against the Jets and back-to-back weekend games at Chicago and Nashville – the results of which could determine whether general manager Joe Sakic
is a buyer or a seller.
While the power play continues to be problematic – 0-for-3 Monday, 0-for-26 the past nine games – the Avalanche killed all four Golden Knights power plays, running their modest streak to 11 in a row in the past three games.
“Definitely we’re playing a lot better,” Varlamov said. “Our defensive zone structure was much better the last couple games. We made a couple changes with the coaching staff and it works. It’s nice to see the guys doing a great job.”
Jost scored the critical first goal at 6:36 of the first period. He forced Vegas’ Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
into a turnover, gained possession between the hash marks and spun around for his first goal since Jan. 2 against San Jose.
“I liked him tonight,” Bednar said. “On pucks, second effort on pucks, a little more strength in the battles that we’ve seen from him in recent past. If you get a guy like Calvert or Landeskog that can help a young kid like that, talk to him a little bit ... he knows he’s got two viable guys with him defensively, it helps you gain confidence.”
Agozzino, who was recalled Sunday from the Colorado Eagles, was in the slot when he converted Landeskog’s pass to make it 2-0 at 5:47 of the second period.
“I've been waiting a long time for that moment,” Agozzino said. “It's special and tough to put into words. There was a lot emotion after I saw it go in and just pure excitement. I came up with the mindset to try to help this team, whatever aspect it was. I'm glad I did that tonight to help this team to get a win. It's a big two points and a special night for me.
“I'm sure my dad is going to call me for (the puck). I'm sure it will go in a nice frame in my house, but he'll be fighting me for it.”
Agozzino, 28, had not played in the NHL since the 2015-16 season; he entered with three assists in 10 career games. He was leading the Eagles in scoring with 28 goals and 50 points in 48 games.
Agozzino collected an assist when Calvert batted in Nieto’s shot at 6:53 of the third for a 3-0 lead.