BUFFALO — Colorado’s high-powered offense isn’t used to shutouts, let alone ones in back-to-back games. But after failing to score Thursday against Pittsburgh, the Avalanche once again couldn’t break through in a 4-0 loss to the Sabres.
The team’s execution was off. The power play couldn’t break through against a top-10 Sabres penalty kill. Buffalo goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen played a strong game, and Colorado didn’t do enough to make his life difficult. Cale Makar called the loss “a reality check to reset the boys.”
But in a game with seemingly no positives, the Avalanche can take a major silver lining: The game could have been much, much worse. Makar had an injury scare, but appears to be OK heading into a pair of off days.
Late in the second period, Makar skated to grab a puck behind his net. Then, with the defenseman’s back turned, Sabres forward Kyle Okposo shoved him into the boards. Makar’s right leg appeared to twist awkwardly as he collided with the wall. He stayed down on the ice as play continued and, after looking pained standing up, needed help getting to the bench. He went immediately to the dressing room.
Makar didn’t play the rest of the second period, but he took a twirl on the ice ahead of the third. Throughout the start of the period, he walked between the bench and dressing room “just trying to sort a few things” and ultimately finished the game. He said he thinks he’ll be fine.
“I just got lucky,” he said.
In this instance, that’s far more important than the result of the actual game.
With that, let’s dig into weekly observations, which cover Colorado’s win against the Islanders and back-to-back 4-0 losses to Pittsburgh and Buffalo. As a nod to Joe Sakic’s number, I have 19 observations.
1. Makar took responsibility for the play that resulted in his near-injury.
“I think a lot of it’s on me just going back slow, no effort,” he said. “I tried to take a stride in front. I don’t know if I caught myself or what happened, but the next thing I knew I was sliding on the boards.”
Cale Makar goes to the locker room following this push by Kyle Okposo. pic.twitter.com/T2KN81RNBN
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 29, 2023
His teammates and coach did not feel the same way. Coach Jared Bednar called Okposo’s play dangerous, and Devon Toews agreed. He seemed frustrated that the referees let play continue after the sequence.
“It’s a penalty in my books,” Toews said. “This league is trying to protect stars, trying to protect players, and that’s a play that’s dangerous, in my opinion, and something that needs to be addressed. We’re addressing the head contact, different plays, here and there, but that’s one that sticks out to me as something that’s very dangerous for a player.”
“I don’t know why there’s no penalty,” Mikko Rantanen added. “It’s pretty obvious, I think. I get called every time I do that, even if it’s not high speed. I don’t know what the refs saw there.”
2. Okposo told Buffalo News reporter Lance Lysowski that he wasn’t trying to push Makar.
“I knew he was tired, so I was trying to close the gap and once he went, I was honestly just trying to go around him,” Okposo said. “Then, he goes down and it’s like, oh no. You never want to see that.”
Okposo spoke briefly to Makar postgame, per Lysowski, and explained he wasn’t trying to cause a collision with the boards.
3. Shortly after the play, Nathan MacKinnon got a two-minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, then a 10-minute misconduct. Bednar assumed the penalties were because his star expressed frustration with the officials.
“I’d just like the officials to have thicker skin in that spot,” Bednar said. “They know they may have missed one or decided not to call it, whatever it is. I think you’ve got to take a little bit of harsh feedback in that situation without dolling out a 10 (minute misconduct penalty).”
Toews, interestingly, said he didn’t love Colorado’s response to the play.
“We stood up and doing anything from it, took penalties off it,” he said. “It hurts the team even more than just Cale being hurt and missing shifts.”
4. Alexandar Georgiev has started all eight Avalanche games this season. According to Evolving-Hockey, he entered Sunday with the fourth-most goals saved above expected among goalies who have played at least five games. Even after the back-to-back losses, his save percentage is still .915.
Colorado has to monitor Georgiev’s workload, but there also has yet to be an obvious time to start backup Ivan Prosvetov. Georgiev had two days off heading into both the Islanders and Sabres contests, and it’s hard to blame him for the past two games considering Colorado’s failure to score goals.
“He’s still kept us in games,” Ryan Johansen said. “We’ve had chances. If we can score a goal in these last two we’re back in these games, and we haven’t been able to do that for him.”
Bednar said after the Sabres game that he’s not overly concerned about how tired Georgiev is physically, but he hinted that a mental break could be on the horizon.
“When we give him a break, I’d like it to be a couple days that he doesn’t even have to think about hockey,” Bednar said. “Then start working a little bit and get ready to go. I don’t mind having a five-day break or six-day break for him, I think that’s healthy, especially when you’re playing a lot.”
Colorado could consider starting Prosvetov or Justus Annunen on Wednesday against St. Louis, then have Georgiev play Saturday in Vegas after five full days off.
5. This week marked the first time Colorado has been shut out in back-to-back games since December 2016. Though it’s an alarming end to October, the team still finished the month with a 6-2-0 record. They’re tied with Dallas for first place in the division by point percentage. No need to panic because of two games.
6. Captain Gabriel Landeskog, who is doing most of his rehab in the Toronto area, drove down to Buffalo to watch Sunday’s game. On Saturday, he and Avalanche players met up with former teammate Erik Johnson, who is now on the Sabres.
MacKinnon mentioned he has felt both Landeskog and Johnson’s absence this year.
“(Johnson) was one of two teammates, him and Gabe, that I’ve always played with since I was 18,” he said. “Obviously it’s different not having them around.”
7. ESPN’s Emily Kaplan interviewed Avalanche general manager Chris MacFarland about Landeskog, and the general manager offered a few notable nuggets about his standout winger:
- Landeskog will come to Colorado from time to time, but he doesn’t want to take away treatment time from his teammates in Denver. Kaplan wrote that Landeskog “has better resources for dedicated medical time in his offseason home.”
- MacFarland isn’t getting excited until Landeskog starts doing intense skating. The team is handling it with caution because, as Kaplan wrote, his “career hangs in the balance.”
- My main takeaway is that this is going to be a long process and that it’s no use speculating on Landeskog’s timeline at this point. The team might be cautiously optimistic he can return for the playoffs, but too much has to happen before that can be viewed as anything close to a guarantee. In MacFarland’s words to ESPN: “It’s really uncharted territory.”
8. A shockingly large number of people have asked me what the Avalanche’s dressing room win song is, so I did some digging.
“We’re still looking for it,” Rantanen said after the Islanders game. “We don’t want to force anything. We’re going to let it come to us.”
No set victory song doesn’t mean no music. Johansen has taken over as team DJ despite being in his first year with the team.
“Somebody gave me the iPad early on, and they haven’t taken it from me,” he said.
9. The Avalanche brought defenseman Corey Schueneman on the road trip in case someone got hurt, but he didn’t play. My guess is that, if the team went into the trip knowing it was going to use an extra defenseman, someone else (perhaps Caleb Jones) would have gotten the call. Schueneman got reassigned to the Eagles right after the Sabres game.
10. Ross Colton scored his first goal with the Avalanche during the Islanders game. He did so without shooting the puck. With Ilya Sorokin on the bench for an extra Islanders attacker, Brock Nelson tried to pass to the point. But Noah Dobson couldn’t grab the puck and it went into the empty net. Since Colton took the faceoff and was the last Avalanche player to touch the puck, he got credit for the goal.
Colton nearly scored on a power play earlier in the game, but Sorokin stretched his pad to barely halt his shot. Perhaps the fluke empty netter was the universe evening things out.
“He robbed me there, and I was fortunate enough to get a lucky one,” Colton said.
11. No one on the Avalanche has more familiarity with Sorokin than Valeri Nichushkin. They spent two years together as teammates on CSKA Moscow in the KHL.
Nichushkin said pregame that he wanted to score on his ex-goalie. He didn’t end up potting one, but he had two assists.
12. In recent years, J.T. Compher was always the Avalanche player tasked with getting pucks out of the net before pregame line rushes. With the center now in Detroit, Bowen Byram has taken on the puck-distributing task.
“Nobody else wanted to do it, so I had to do it,” he said with a laugh.
13. Byram had his best game of the season against the Islanders and scored his first goal. Bednar said he wanted the young defenseman to move his feet more and play with added assertiveness. That served him well in New York.
“Happy to contribute, but I think there’s another ceiling I can reach,” Byram said. “Just keep working at it.”
14. Josh Manson had turnovers against both the Penguins and Sabres that led to goals. He had a minus-four rating in those two games.
15. Manson wasn’t alone. Giveaways plagued Colorado against Pittsburgh.
“We reviewed our game today and we were actually pretty good defensively in our structure, better than the Islanders game,” said MacKinnon, who couldn’t connect on a pass before the Penguins’ fourth goal. “We just had a lot of turnovers and we weren’t creating much offensively.”
16. During warmups in Buffalo, Rantanen jokingly flipped a puck at former Avalanche forward Tyson Jost, a well-liked teammate who is now on the Sabres. Jost got the last laugh, though, scoring his first goal of the season against Colorado.
17. Sabres coach Don Granato put Erik Johnson in the starting lineup against his former team. He played 19:42 in the game and helped the Sabres penalty kill halt six Avalanche power plays.
“He’s got experience and he knows what you have to do to win,” Sabres teammate Rasmus Dahlin said. “He’s a great guy to be around. I ask a ton of questions to him.”
With Dahlin, Owen Power and Johnson, the Sabres are the first team in history to have three defensemen in their lineup who were once No. 1 overall picks.
18. Johnson chatted in the hallway after the game with Landeskog, Bednar and other Avalanche staffers.
19. Avalanche stories from the past week:
(Top photo: Timothy T. Ludwig / USA Today)