If the first 50 games of the Avalanche’s season have proved anything, it’s that one of hockey’s youngest, most talented teams still has plenty of room to grow.
That fact was underscored again in the Avs’ 5-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center, where Colorado hustled and battled for every puck against Minnesota but simply made too many mistakes to win. That has often been the case lately as the Avalanche has fallen from atop the Western Conference early in the season to the second wild-card spot heading into the all-star break.
“We have to find a way to be more mature, and stick to the game plan, and continue to play (to it) whether it’s frustrating or not,” coach Jared Bednar said. “I’m still confident in our team, but nights like this where we don’t play a mature team game, it bothers me.”
On Wednesday, it was a sloppy turnover, a pair of two-man disadvantages and a couple of undisciplined defensive possessions that enabled the Wild to send Colorado to its seventh defeat in the 10 games since the calendar turned to January. The Avalanche (22-20-8) isn’t in action again until Feb. 2, as all-star weekend is followed by the team’s bye week.
“We didn’t take care of the puck,” Bednar said. “(We had) too many turnovers in the middle of the ice. We weren’t willing to skate the puck and chip the puck and make safe, smart decisions. … Every decision was looking to be too cute, too stubborn.”
The Avalanche struck first at the 14:18 mark of the opening period when Matt Calvert fought for, and gained, possession of a loose puck behind behind the Wild net. Calvert zipped the puck to Colin Wilson, who followed with a quick pass to Carl Soderberg in front of the crease. The 33-year-old buried the tic-tac-toe look for his fifth goal in the last five games, and a career-high 17 goals for the season.
But Colorado’s momentum was short-lived.
Just over a minute later, a turnover by Sam Girard in the defensive zone led to a retaliatory goal by Minnesota’s Eric Staal to tie the game 1-1. The teams would continue to trade rushes after that until the first penalty of the game, a hooking call on Greg Pateryn, opened the door for another Colorado score.
Tyson Barrie retook the lead less than a minute into the advantage, wristing home a goal through traffic from center ice, off the inside of the left post and in for a 2-1 lead with 7:40 to play in the first. Again, though, the lead didn’t hold, with Jared Spurgeon’s goal at 3:33 making it 2-2 as the Wild notched its 31st defensive score this season (second in the NHL).
“Our commitment to defend wasn’t where our commitment to play offense was tonight, especially early in the game, when we handed them a couple of easy goals,” Bednar said.
Each defense cinched down slightly in the second, with the offenses staying aggressive but the shot rate dropping markedly. But Minnesota got its big chance about five minutes in, when Alex Kerfoot was whistled for hooking and Ian Cole was sent to the box for holding 58 seconds after that. Trips to the box continue to be problematic for Colorado, as the team entered the night ranked in the cellar of the NHL with 10.3 opponent penalty minutes per game.
That left the Wild with a 5-on-3 opportunity, which Staal quickly converted from the wide-open back door with his second goal of the game to make it 3-2 at 12:36. Minnesota’s passing then continued to pick apart the Colorado defense, this time at full strength, with Spurgeon’s goal off assists by Jason Zucker and Ryan Suter with 23 seconds to play in the second.
“It’s frustrating,” Avs captain Gabe Landeskog said. “We need to be better. We had two leads to begin the game, and we couldn’t build on them.”
Colorado couldn’t overcome the 4-2 deficit in the final period as Devan Dubnyk and the Minnesota defense kept the home team from settling into any true offensive rhythm, while the Wild added another 5-on-3 goal.
Now, the Avalanche hope the time off will allow the team to recharge and reverse course upon return, with Colorado still in the playoff picture despite all recent woes.
“There has to be (optimism) in that,” Soderberg said. “We need to get some energy out of that, because even though we’ve had all these losses, we’re still in it, and that’s a good thing.”