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Sans star center Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche defeats Anaheim in overtime

The Avalanche fell another man-down Friday night — this time losing its best player.

Star center Nathan MacKinnon suffered an apparent head injury late in Wednesday’s game at San Jose but participated in Friday’s morning skate and was cleared to play. However, he became a game-time scratch before the Avs faced the Anaheim Ducks to begin a two-game set at Ball Arena.

“The afternoon, he came down and wasn’t feeling good. The protocol says you can’t play and we’re not going to put him out there and risk him getting hurt or making it worse,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said of MacKinnon. “I don’t know what that means as far as tomorrow or the next day but I’m assuming he’s going to miss a couple games.”

Minus MacKinnon, Valeri Nichushkin saved the day in an otherwise shoddy performance to begin a club-record nine-game homestand. The Russian winger scored twice, the latter at 2:45 in overtime to give the Avs a 3-2 victory.

Brandon Saad also scored for Colorado (13-7-1), which got 26 saves from goalie Philipp Grubauer.

All three of Colorado’s goals were scored from the goal crease or just in front of it.

“Happy for (Nichushkin), happy for the team,” Saad said. “He was sharp tonight.”

Anaheim came to on an eight-game winless streak (6-0-2) and had won just once in its last 10 games. But the Ducks found themselves leading 2-0 midway through Friday’s game.

In replacing MacKinnon, second-line center Nazem Kadri moved up to the first line and Tyson Jost came up from the fourth line to center the second. Jost was solid in an increased workload and assisted on Colorado’s second goal that tied it 2-2 at 17:23 of the second period.

Saad was credited with that goal, tapping in a loose puck in the crease of goalie John Gibson seconds after an Avalanche power play expired.

“It seemed after that we got some jump and we kind of finished off the game well,” Saad said.

Gibson was perfect until Nichushkin sliced Anaheim’s 2-0 lead in half by scoring from the same spot as Saad. Nichushkin accepted a Joonas Donskoi pass and tapped the puck over Gibson from blue paint of the crease at 14:46. Less than three minutes later, it was a 2-2 hockey game.

The Ducks, who stand last in the eight-team West Division, scored late in the first period (19:50) and early in the second (2:22), with Adam Henrique and Jakob Silfverberg using wrist shots to beat Grubauer.

Before Silfverberg’s goal, the Avs had a Kadri goal disallowed because of a high stick and Nichushkin had a wrist shot beat Gibson but carom off both posts.

The rematch between the teams to conclude the two-game set is Saturday at 6 p.m.

Bednar said his team has to be better to earn another two points.

“I thought (Nichushkin) played well. No question,” the coach said. “I give our team a lot of credit for sticking with it and finding a way and getting a little better as the game went on, but as far as what I thought of the game, I didn’t like the game at all. It was just sloppy, too many turnovers, and we looked tired. That first game back off a road trip is tough but that was an ugly game from our team tonight.

Footnotes. MacKinnon joined five others on the injured list: Defensemen Cale Makar and Bo Byram and forward Matt Calvert, each out day-to-day with upper-body injuries, and defenseman Erik Johnson (upper body) and goalie Pavel Francouz, who both are on long-term injured reserve. Byram and Calvert skated Friday but Makar did not. … Avs defenseman Daniel Renouf, who was playing in his fifth career NHL game, had an assist on Saad’s goal for his first career point. … Gabe Landeskog did not participate in Friday’s morning skate after witnessing the birth of his second child, a boy, Thursday night. Gabe and Melissa Landeskog also have a 15-month-old daughter. … Avs depth defenseman Dennis Gilbert is recovering from facial surgery but was added to the NHL’s COVID-19 absence list Friday.

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