Facing a depleted prospect pool, the Colorado Avalanche have adopted a strategy of turning to the NCAA in recent years to replenish their ranks with older prospects that come at no acquisition cost. In Tuesday night’s game against the Ottawa Senators, this approach paid off as three different NCAA free agents found the back of the net, contributing to the Avalanche’s 7-4 victory.
Logan O’Connor, Jason Polin, and Sam Malinski all delivered goals, playing pivotal roles in securing the win over the struggling Senators. Malinski, in particular, showcased his impressive skills with an additional assist and a goal that was unfortunately disallowed in the second period.
His consistent performance is making it increasingly challenging to consider sending him back to the Colorado Eagles. Sam Girard, in his ninth game since returning to the team, contributed with three assists, while Mikko Rantanen notched two goals.
In his inaugural start of the season in the NHL, goaltender Justus Annunen displayed a commendable performance by stopping 36 of the 40 shots directed his way, securing his third career victory.
The Avalanche opted for an interesting decision by not including Alexandar Georgiev in the lineup, a choice that appears justifiable in my opinion. Given the past instance where Georgiev was supposed to have a night off but had to return due to a rough outing by Ivan Prosvetov, not dressing him guarantees a full night of rest.
In this game, it was Justus Annunen making his first appearance in an Avalanche uniform this season, with Colorado being somewhat sloppy after playing just 24 hours prior. Annunen faced early and frequent tests due to turnovers and poor pinches by the team.
Despite the challenges, Annunen showcased his skills by making key saves, including stopping Brady Tkachuk on a mini-breakaway and denying Brannstrom on another good chance.
Ottawa earned the first powerplay of the game due to a bit of a fluke play involving Ross Colton unintentionally hitting Ottawa’s goaltender, Mads Sogaard, under his helmet.
Taking advantage of the opportunity, Drake Batherson’s initial shot was blocked by Logan O’Connor, but he recovered the puck and beat Annunen on the glove side, giving Ottawa an early lead.
The Avalanche responded quickly, tying the game at 1-1 just 38 seconds later. A well-executed exchange between Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar left Mikko Rantanen with an easy tap-in goal after going down to a knee. Despite Ottawa dominating chances in the first period, Annunen ensured the score remained 1-1 at the intermission by stopping 14 shots.
The second period proved less favorable for Annunen, although the team in front of him didn’t make it any easier. Just 1:21 into the period, Brady Tkachuk’s play turned Nathan MacKinnon around, and his shot, seemingly deflected by a body in front, hit Annunen’s shoulder, resting on the goal line. Ridley Greig battled to push it over, granting Ottawa the lead.
Responding swiftly for the second time in the game, the Avalanche evened the score. Sam Malinski’s exceptional stretch pass to Fredrik Olofsson, who relayed it to Polin, resulted in the 24-year-old winger firing a quick wrist shot past Sogaard for his inaugural NHL goal.
Capitalizing on the long change in the second period, Ottawa exploited Colorado’s line change, creating a 3-on-2 opportunity, and Greig had ample time in the slot to score over Annunen’s shoulder, giving the home team a 3-2 lead. Shortly thereafter, Jake Sanderson eluded Jonathan Drouin and, with a swift move, beat Annunen on the blocker side, extending Ottawa’s lead to 4-2.
In an attempt to shift momentum, Sam Malinski, in his 21st NHL game, took matters into his own hands. With time and space, he skated up the middle, crossed the blueline, and fired a wrist shot past Sogaard to seemingly cut the lead to one. However, Ottawa challenged the goal, revealing an offsides by Jonathan Drouin, leading to the goal being disallowed.
Despite the setback, the Avalanche’s superstars displayed their ability to create opportunities in an instant. Girard’s long pass to MacKinnon, who quickly relayed it to Rantanen, resulted in the big Finn firing a perfect wrist shot over Sogaard’s glove, narrowing the lead to 4-3. Although Colorado had a late powerplay in the second, they failed to capitalize, leaving the score unchanged heading into the intermission.
If you recall the events in Denver last month, Ottawa squandered a two-goal lead to the Avalanche at Ball Arena, making the third-period developments hardly surprising.
Miles Wood, making his first appearance since January 4, quickly caught attention, but truly left his mark four minutes into the third period. A well-executed drop pass from Logan O’Connor found Wood in the high slot.
Maneuvering around the defender, Wood deked his way to the net and beat Sogaard on the blocker side, leveling the score at four. Wood’s absence from the lineup was notably felt by Colorado, and his return proved to be a game-changer.
Shortly after, Cale Makar drew a tripping penalty on Claude Giroux, granting the Avalanche a powerplay. In a rare occurrence for the season, the second unit contributed, and at 8:14, Sam Malinski found redemption. Girard’s attempt to execute a give-and-go with Johansen redirected to Malinski at the point. Using the Senators’ forwards as a screen, the young defenseman cleanly beat Sogaard on the blocker side, giving Colorado their first lead of the game.
Four minutes later, the lead was further extended by the red-hot Logan O’Connor, who beat Sogaard on the glove side. Devon Toews sealed the victory with a late empty-netter, and Justus Annunen secured the win with solid goaltending, resulting in a 7-4 triumph for the Avalanche.
Looking ahead, the road trip continues on Thursday as the Avalanche head to Boston for a rematch with the Bruins. The previous encounter between these two teams in Denver was a remarkable game, and expectations are high for another thrilling matchup. A lingering question for Colorado is whether Artturi Lehkonen will make a return to the lineup.