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For the third consecutive postseason, the Avalanche faces a must-win Game 6 in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Two years ago, the Avalanche had 18,006 home fans helping propel it to a 4-3 overtime win over San Jose.
Last August, the Avalanche played a “road” game against Dallas in the Edmonton bubble (attendance: none) and won 4-1.
But Thursday night’s assignment against Vegas is different and steeper. The Avs must win at the Golden Knights’ madhouse-of-a-home-rink, have lost three consecutive games and can’t get their top players out of their scoring funks.
No matter, the Avalanche chartered to Las Vegas Wednesday afternoon believing its Game 5 form (3-2 overtime loss) can carry over and optimistic Nathan MacKinnon and Gabe Landeskog (combined two assists in last four games) are close to busting out.
“We’re a really good hockey team, they’re a really good hockey team and you have to lay it all on the line, play your game, play fearless and the chips will fall where they fall,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “We know it’s not going to be easy. We don’t expect it to be easy. We have to go and earn it.
“I believe we can get it done. I’ve seen our guys step up in big moments and none is bigger than this one.”
A Vegas win sends the Knights to the conference finals against Montreal.
An Avalanche win sends the series home Saturday for Game 7.
“Our team has a really good mindset,” Avs defenseman Cale Makar said. “There are still two games left and that’s the way we’re looking at it. We’re just excited to get this next one going.”
In order to get his club going, Bednar made undisclosed tactical adjustments before Game 4 and on-display changes in Game 5, re-setting all four forward lines. He liked the steps forward in Sunday’s 5-1 loss that evened the series and really liked the strides in Game 5 even though the Avs threw away a 2-0 lead.
“Definitely another big step (Tuesday),” Bednar said. “I don’t see any reason why our team can’t play with the same attack mentality that we had last night and go in there and get the job done.”
Said rookie winger Alex Newhook: “A big focus going into (Game 5) was being the aggressor and I thought we did a good job at getting after pucks and not letting them come after us — we were getting after them. If we can carry that into Vegas and play that game, it will give us a good shot at getting the win.”
The right mentality, right approach, etc., will give the Avalanche a good shot.
But everybody knows what will give the Avs the best shot: Production from MacKinnon and Landeskog.
The NHL’s best line during the regular season, the MacKinnon-Landeskog-Mikko Rantanen trio rolled through St. Louis in the first round. In Games 2-5 against Vegas (1-3 record), Rantanen has two goals and an assist, but MacKinnon and Landeskog have only an assist apiece.
For Game 5, Bednar broke up the line, sending Landeskog to the second unit with winger Valeri Nichushkin and center J.T. Compher. Winger Brandon Saad moved up to the MacKinnon-Rantanen line.
Bednar largely kept MacKinnon away from Vegas’ top line of Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and Chandler Stephenson. He won’t have that luxury in Game 6 if coach Pete DeBoer seeks that matchup via last change.
“I thought Nate was pretty good (on Tuesday); he took a big step forward,” Bednar said. “I think he’s putting too much pressure on himself and is a little antsy with the puck. … I think he’s ready to break out this next game.”
Landeskog didn’t even have a shot on goal in Games 3-4 and regulation of Game 5. Bednar said he met with the Avalanche captain before Tuesday’s match.
“I think he’s really fired up,” Bednar said. “I thought (his) line was outstanding. They were all over (Vegas).”
Create more than one power play like in Games 4-5. Be smarter with the puck and not commit own-zone turnovers. And get regular season-type production from MacKinnon and Landeskog. That’s the formula to force a Game 7.
“I’m as encouraged after (Tuesday) night’s game as I was at 2-2,” Bednar said. “If we can go and play the same type of game and just manage the puck a couple percent better, we’re going to give ourselves a good chance to win. If we do that, we’re coming home for Game 7.”