Thanksgiving marks a convenient time of reflection in the NHL, not for expressing gratitude, but for measuring potential. Nearly two months into the season, teams tend to sense if they’re contending or pretending.
The Avalanche, less than a week after the holiday, found itself in the dregs of the Central Division on Wednesday at the Pepsi Center, looking up at six other squads. But this is an Avs team in transition after a roster-shaking trade earlier this month and perhaps their reckoning can wait.
Nathan MacKinnon scored twice in overtime — the first was overturned on video replay — and the Avs rallied back through a dramatic third period against the Winnipeg Jets for a 3-2 victory that jettisoned them out of the basement.
“That’s when you need your top guys to step up, to get an opportunity in overtime,” Bednar said of MacKinnon. “And really he got two there.”
Colorado (12-9-2), without its suspended captain, Gabriel Landeskog, took advantage of a Jets team playing a third consecutive game in a different time zone to snap a two-game losing skid. The Avs moved eight points behind second-place Winnipeg (15-6-4) in the Central and one point ahead of now-last place Minnesota.
Boxscore: Colorado 3, Winnipeg 2
“We lose our captain and a couple big-body guys we could use on a night like this, but our guys played brave,” Bednar said. “You have to find a way to beat teams in your division. If you can’t win games against those teams, they stretch out the points lead on you and you almost have to win everything else to catch them.”
MacKinnon snapped a 4-on-3 power-play goal past red-hot Winnipeg goaltender Connor Hellebuyck 59 seconds into overtime. The shot ricocheted off the backside of Winnipeg defenseman Josh Morrisey, after the Jets carried over a penalty from late in regulation for having too many men on the ice.
MacKinnon seeemed to score 30 seconds earlier after deflecting a shot off a Jets defender, but a video replay showed Tyson Barrie had fallen, barely, over the blue line offsides.
But before the Avs hosted the streaking Jets, Colorado’s coach sensed something afoot.
“We’ve looked at some of the goals we’ve scored 5-on-5 over the past 10 games and there’s a consistent theme to it,” Avs bench boss Jared Bednar said. “It’s guys getting to the net for screens and tips and tracking down rebounds. When we do that, we have success.”
Against a bigger, faster Winnipeg team that has streaked toward the top of the Western Conference, the Avs found footing in the difficult areas. They got goals from a rookie (Alexander Kerfoot), a defender (Nikita Zadorov) and their star center, MacKinnon, whose goal and an assist gave him a career-high 20 points this month (on five goals and 15 assists).
MacKinnon is carrying Colorado. But his time Wednesday had to wait.
Winnipeg struck early. As the Avs collapsed down low, top-line center Mark Scheifele teed up lefty defenseman Josh Morrissey for a blue-line slapper that beat Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov to his stick side. Morrissey found a free lane to the net as Avs winger Matt Nieto faded toward the net than bounced back too slowly to impede the shot.
This is what flummoxed the Avs on Saturday in a 3-2 home loss to the Calgary, as the Flames scored twice in the final minute of the second period to pull away.
“Last game, we were flat. We didn’t have our legs. We didn’t skate well. It showed,” Bednar said. “The way we can be hard to play against, as a smaller group, we have to use our legs and skate with pace.”
That idea took root five minutes after Winnipeg opened the scoring. The Avs forced the Jets to back-skate on a power plate and as Winnipeg retreated, Colorado dug out a goal. MacKinnon pegged a shot from the left side that Hellebuyck blocked. J.T. Compher hooked a rebound shot. Hellebuyck got in the way again, but as he scrambled through the crease, his helmet spun off. And Kerfoot back-handed in a second rebound try for a game-tying goal.
Nikolaj Ehlers’ streaking effort in the third — he flew down the right side like the Avs were skating in drying concrete — set up Bryan Little for an easy rebound shot the crawled under Semyon Varlamov to give Winnipeg a 2-1 lead.
Zadorov, though, tied the game at 2-2 immediately after a power play. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound defenseman trucked down the ice and kept chugging, plowing through the Jets defense for a wrist-shot goal from between the circles with eight minutes remaining.