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The Avalanche had to do it differently Tuesday night.
In their first game without injured superstar Nathan MacKinnon, the Avs couldn’t count on the perennial Hart Trophy candidate to provide his elite skills in all three zones. They were forced to accept the fact they must learn to win without MacKinnon because, according to coach Jared Bednar, he could be out for multiple weeks from a mysterious lower-body injury suffered Sunday in Minnesota.
Mission accomplished. The top line didn’t score in the third of four consecutive games against the Wild, but the Avs’ all-around depth was good enough to forge a 2-1 victory at Ball Arena. Colorado (7-3-1), which is now 2-0-1 against Minnesota since Saturday, got goals from depth forwards Logan O’Connor and Valeri Nichushkin and goalie Philipp Grubauer stopped 27-of-28 shots for his NHL-leading seventh win.
“We played with a better conscience, for sure,” said Bednar, who was critical of how his team played in Sunday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Wild in which MacKinnon was injured. “I liked the work ethic of our group. I liked the way they stuck with our game plan and found a way to get the job done.”
The Avs had successfully killed 22 consecutive power plays entering Tuesday, but Minnesota, while trailing 2-0, scored on its third man-advantage opportunity to end the streak at 24. Wild rookie winger Kirill Kaprizov got the goal at 13:05 off a nice pass from Zach Parise.
But Bednar didn’t have a problem with the penalty that created the power play. Minnesota forward Kyle Rau forechecked hard into the corner as Avs star defenseman Cale Makar was playing the puck with a defender draped on him. Rau created a 2-on-1 advantage and delivered what looked like a dangerous hit on Makar. I could have been boarding or charging.
Rau fell to the ice on the play, rose to his skates and Avs center J.T. Compher, MacKinnon’s replacement, was ready to fight. Both he and Rau received fighting majors and Compher drew an additional minor for unsportsmanlike conduct (instigating).
“All day long,” Bednar said when asked if he was OK with Compher’s actions. “I thought they should have had the extra (penalty). I thought the hit (on Makar) was probably boarding or a charge. They don’t call it. We get the extra.”
In addition to the goal-allowed, the Avs had to play without their first-line center for seven minutes.
“If it ended up costing us the game it’s a little bit different, but … I think you got to stick up for one another. You got to police yourselves if the officials don’t,” Bednar said. “I was fine with the play and I still am.”
“I appreciate what Comph did,” Makar said. “We should have got the kill for him.”
The Avs scored first for the ninth time in 11 games. Fourth-liner O’Connor (who is still technically an NHL rookie) made it 1-0 at 17:45 of the first period. He picked up a loose puck beside the right post, threw it at Talbot and the puck caromed in off his pads. It was O’Connor’s second goal in three games since being recalled.
The Avs are now 6-2-1 when scoring the game’s first goal.
Colorado went ahead 2-0 at 7:09 of the second period. Joonas Donskoi won the draw in Minnesota’s end and managed to also get off a quick shot. Nichushkin drove to the net and slapped the rebound in between Talbot’s legs.
MacKinnon is the newcomer to the long injury list. Defensemen Erik Johnson and Devon Toews missed their second and third-straight games, respectively. Forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare also missed his third-straight. Winger Matt Calvert missed his fourth and goalie Pavel Francouz, who backed up Grubauer in the first two games, has been on the injured list the last nine games. Bednar doesn’t expect any of those players back this week.