Avalanche finding their groove as defending champs prep for playoff push
Nathan MacKinnon collected a pass just inside his own blue line and started to gather speed.
In the blink of an eye, the lightning-quick Colorado Avalanche sniper blew past four penalty killers before beating Montreal Canadiens goaltender Sam Montembeault.
The highlight-reel effort in an emphatic 8-4 victory earlier this week made the expected rounds on social media.
It could have also served as another warning — the defending Stanley Cup champions are still here.
Following a gruelling playoff run and short off-season, Colorado had a tough start to the 2022-23 schedule thanks in part to a rash of injuries that saw MacKinnon, fellow forward Valeri Nichushkin, defencemen Cale Makar, Bowen Byram, Josh Manson and a host of others miss significant time.
The Avalanche also lost Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky in free agency, while captain Gabriel Landeskog has yet to play a minute of action as he continues to recover from knee surgery.
Despite all the adversity — gritty winger Artturi Lehkonen is the latest key piece to go down — Colorado has clawed back into the Western Conference playoff race, sitting third in the Central Division with games in hand.
"Been a challenge this year," Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar said. "I don't want to call it a (Stanley Cup) hangover, but getting ready to play to the same level you played at the year before right out of the gate was difficult.
"We were pretty comfortable where we were at … I don't think we were pushing to the level that we needed."
MacKinnon said pivoting to a new season with Colorado's victory still top of mind provided plenty of distractions.
"In training camp the Cup's around and you have your ring ceremony," he said. "You're kind of living in the previous year.
"You've got to earn it again. It's gone now. It's over with and we've got to move on."
MacKinnon said the team's scuffling start led to "a couple of meetings" in hopes of getting things pointed in the right direction.
The message was clear — the patchwork lineup required on many nights simply had to find a way.
"You get into a lull," MacKinnon said. "We were kind of waiting for help a little bit, and it wasn't coming.
"It's up to everyone to elevate their game."
Colorado, which really started to turn things around with a six-game winning streak in January, owns the NHL's four-best record (11-4-3) since the all-star break.
Veteran forward Andrew Cogliano said last year's run to the final helped prepare the Avalanche for this season's roller-coaster.
"There was a standard with this team that no matter the injuries, no matter the situation, we had to play to," he said. "When we were going through all that stuff — and we still are — it made guys play above themselves."
Makar said the team has simply been trying to manage the long list of pitfalls.
"Hopefully this will help us down the road," said last season's Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP. "We've played with a lot of adversity in November, December there (without) our usual lineup."
MacKinnon has been doing his part — and not just with jaw-dropping individual efforts — in particular since Jan. 1, sitting second to only Connor McDavid for total points with 48 over that span.
"I don't think any of us are really surprised," said Makar, who also won the Norris Trophy in 2021-22 as the NHL's top defenceman. "He expects a high standard from himself. That draws everybody else to that standard."
The Eastern Conference has garnered most of the headlines this season with a number of powerhouse clubs led by the juggernaut Boston Bruins.
The playoff picture in the West, meanwhile, could be a lot more wide-open once the seeds are set.
"A lot of parity," Bednar said. "Everyone gives you a different challenge in a different way.
"As a coach, every team worries me a little bit."
MacKinnon said the rest of his conference should feel the same about the Avalanche — as long as they land above the playoff cutline.
"We're just trying to get in," he said. "I'm sure no one wants to see us in the first round if we're in a wild-card spot."
The Ottawa Senators sat three points out of the East's second wild card after beating last-place Columbus on March 4 for their fifth-straight win.
But an ugly 1-4-0 road trip that saw them outscored 26-10 might have resigned the nation's capital to a sixth straight campaign without playoff hockey.
"This group's not going to quit," Senators head coach D.J. Smith said following Tuesday's 6-3 loss in Edmonton. "Certainly not the road trip we had envisioned.
"We've got to regroup."
Jeff Skinner combined for just 37 points in 112 games stretched over the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons.
The 30-year-old had a bounce-back showing with 63 points in 80 games in 2021-22 under new head coach Don Granato, and is on the cusp of a second consecutive 30-goal campaign.
"A leader for us," Granato said. "He still loves the game and every day he's trying to find ways to add to his game, and I think that's the ultimate key.
"Any guys in this league that play through age, they find ways to add to their game."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 15, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press