Assessing the Avalanche through 9 games, from goaltending to depth forward ups and downs

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DENVER — When Ross Colton’s shot beat Jordan Binnington and snuck inside the right post Wednesday, the Colorado Avalanche center dropped to a knee and uppercut the air in excitement. Miles Wood, who assisted the goal, skated his teammate’s way and seized him for a bear hug.

It was a bigger-than-normal celebration for a first-period goal in an early-season game, but it made sense given Colorado’s recent play. The Avalanche hadn’t scored in two games, and Colton was looking for his first non-empty net goal with the Avalanche. His elation might have had a hint of relief mixed in.

“You can always kind of read what the player is feeling by the celebration,” coach Jared Bednar said postgame. “He was jazzed up.”

Added Colton: “I’d be lying if I said we weren’t putting a little bit of pressure on ourselves.”

Powered by Colton’s goal and goalie Ivan Prosvetov’s first win with the Avalanche, Colorado won 4-1 against St. Louis, snapping a two-game skid. Bednar’s team has a 7-2-0 record, good enough for second in the Central Division by point percentage. With close to a month of regular-season hockey complete, let’s take a wider view at where the Avalanche stand.

Top-end talent remains trump card

Asked last week what enables the Avalanche to flip a switch so readily when trailing, Bowen Byram smiled and started his answer with a straightforward thought.

“I think we have some of the best players in the world,” he said.

That helps. The Avalanche proceeded to drop their next two games, but Byram’s point remains true. Colorado’s top skaters — Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar — are about as good a trio as there is in the NHL.

The game against the St. Louis Blues was another example of that. If things started to get hairy for the Avalanche, their elite players were there to get them back on track. When St. Louis created a short-handed scoring chance, Rantanen responded with a laser past Binnington. When the Blues cut the Colorado lead to 2-1 late in the second, Makar took over and set up an early third-period Artturi Lehkonen goal.

MacKinnon finished the night with a pair of assists. He, like much of the team, wasn’t at his best during Colorado’s two losses, but he’s back up to a point-per-game rate. Makar is up to 11 points, and Rantanen is at 14 with a team-high six goals.

“Those guys are so consistent with their work ethic and their playmaking ability,” Logan O’Connor said earlier in the year. “It’s easy to follow them when they’re doing all the right things out there.”

Goaltending stays steady

Alexandar Georgiev started the season on a heater, posting a .965 save percentage through Colorado’s first four games. He’s come back to earth a bit, but the Avalanche are overall getting the starts they need from their goaltender. He has a .915 save percentage and has saved 3.86 goals more than expected, per Evolving-Hockey. That’s ninth in the NHL among goalies who entered play Wednesday with at least five games played.

“Georgie has been great,” MacKinnon said. “One of the best in the league. We’re lucky to have a guy like that back there.”

No. 2 Pavel Francouz is out indefinitely with a lower-body injury, but Colorado’s other goalie options have looked good to start the season. Justus Annunen jumped out during the preseason and has a .915 save percentage in the AHL, and Prosvetov stopped 27 of the 28 shots he saw against the Blues.

“He was the best player on the ice today,” Rantanen said. “I’ve been seeing it in practice, too. He’s been solid.”

Colorado will eventually have to get clarity on whether Francouz will be healthy this season. If he’s not, general manager Chris MacFarland and the front office will have to decide whether Prosvetov or Annunen are ready for full-time backup responsibilities or if the team will need to acquire a backup.

Penalty kill thriving

Colorado successfully killed 19 penalties to start the year, and though that streak snapped, the unit has continued to excel. It has been successful 94.4 percent of the time, second only to Boston, and O’Connor has more short-handed goals (3) than Colorado has power-play goals allowed (2).

“Hesitancy in this league on the penalty kill will absolutely kill you,” O’Connor said. “You’re going against the most skilled players in the world. So anytime you hesitate and you give them an extra split second, they’re going to make plays around you. So I think the biggest focus now has been trusting yourself, using our team speed (and getting) sticks in the lanes.”

Devon Toews (33:40) and Makar (29:42) lead the team in penalty-kill ice time. The penalty kill has also been where Josh Manson has made his biggest impact. He’s not far behind Toews and Makar in ice time.

Newcomer Fredrik Olofsson has been a positive addition to the penalty kill. He and O’Connor have the most short-handed ice time among Avalanche forwards. And though Ryan Johansen hasn’t been on the ice much during penalty kills, Bednar has used him to win faceoffs. His abilities in the dot have been a welcome addition in all situations.

New depth forwards still finding their way

Colorado’s need for depth forwards was clear in its series loss to Seattle in April. So MacFarland went to work over the offseason, trading for Colton, Johansen and Olofsson and signing Wood, Tomas Tatar and Jonathan Drouin.

Nine games in, the group is still looking for its footing. Johansen has been steady, though all four of his points have come on the power play, and Olofsson has been a serviceable fourth-line center. The rest are still up and down, though Wednesday marked a step in the right direction for Colton and Wood, who teamed up for Colorado’s first goal.

Bednar made his first major shakeup of the season against St. Louis, scratching Tatar and Drouin in favor of Kurtis MacDermid and Riley Tufte, who had six goals in six AHL games to start the year.

Some of the depth players’ underlying numbers look better than their counting statistics. The Avalanche have 54 percent of the five-on-five expected goal share when Drouin is on the ice, per Natural Stat Trick, and Bednar said he’s created more looks than some of the other newcomers. He had an assist overturned because of an offsides challenge and has been robbed by goalies multiple times in the early part of the season.

“It’s frustrating, but at least I’m getting looks,” he said. “It’s 10 times more frustrating when you’re not creating or getting any looks.”

Tatar, meanwhile, has only one shot on goal in his first eight games. That’s tied with MacDermid for the fewest of any Avalanche skater, and MacDermid has played six fewer games. Bednar acknowledged Tatar has more to give, and the wing has shown it throughout his career. He averaged 1.86 shots per game last season and has six 20-goal seasons to his name. With the Avalanche, Tatar has at points created good looks for his linemates, but the team has only 45.79 percent of the expected goal share with him on the ice, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Colton and Wood have contributed on the penalty kill, and the Avalanche have more than 50 percent of the expected goals when they’re on the ice. The two also appeared to have good chemistry playing on a line with O’Connor on Wednesday.

“The amount of pucks, first touches (O’Connor) gets to makes it so much easier for me and Miles, just because I feel like we’re getting so much more possession,” Colton said.

Perhaps that’s a trio that can continue to work together.

All in all, Colorado doesn’t need to panic about the depth forwards this early in the season. But the group will have to fully hit its stride at some point if the Avalanche are going to fare better than they did last postseason.

Said Bednar: “I think it’s a matter of time before you see things with our new guys start to gel a little bit.”

(Photo of Ivan Prosvetov: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)

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