The Avalanche, winners of 16 straight games on home ice prior to the Wednesday night visit by the Bruins, lack nothing in scoring punch up front in the skilled entities of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and ex-Leaf Nazem Kadri.
Kadri, in fact, began the night ranked No. 5 in league scoring (16-36—52). Yes, Bruins fans, that Nazim Kadri.
Notorious for blowing up playoff series for the Maple Leafs in his Toronto days — for ugly hits on Tommy Wingels in ‘18 and then Jake DeBrusk in ‘19 — the 31-year old Kadri has fashioned himself into vital personnel for a Colorado club that opened the evening with the league’s best points percentage (.762).
Somewhat lost in all that attention on the forwards has been the fact that the Avs also have the league’s most productive 1-2 punch along their backline with Cale Makar and Devon Toews, a one-time Islander draftee (No. 108/2014) shipped to Denver for a couple of second-round draft picks prior to last season.
Makar, the former UMass standout now in his third NHL season, has become a superstar, with his nose for offense (36 games/39 points), dynamic skating featured by tight, quick pivots at times reminiscent of Bobby Orr’s wizardry.
Toews (29 games/32 points) played his college hockey at Quinnipiac, and is not nearly as flashy as Makar. But he is smooth, efficient and ever-involved on the Avs high-octane offense.
Through Tuesday night’s games, the combined 71 points produced by Makar and Toews ranked No. 1 for any two defenseman across the league’s 32 rosters, including the point-hungry:
⋅ Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba, Rangers (67 points).
⋅ Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev, Lightning (66 points)
⋅ Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar , Panthers (64 points).
With Makar and Toews, the Avs also are the only club this season with two regulars each averaging better than a point per game on the backline. If they can keep that rate until season’s end, they’ll become the first defenseman on the same team to click for 1.00 ppg or better since Al MacInnis and Gary Suter did it for the ‘92-’93 Flames. In their tenure with Calgary, MacInnis and Suter combined for that feat two other times, a remarkable achievement greatly overshadowed in the game’s more offensive era.
The Bruins, 10-3-0 in January prior to the faceoff at Ball Arena, could use some added backline scoring punch. Their No. 1 producer back there has been Charlie McAvoy (6-19—25 prior to the Denver stop), followed by fellow BU Terrier Matt Grzelcyk (2-14—16).
The Bruins offense has been revived this month, mainly because of coach Bruce Cassidy reconstructing the top two forward lines. Wringing more points out of the blueline corps, however, remains high on the “to do” list.
“Offensive blue line would be the place,” said Cassidy, targeting the spot from where play and production could get a lift. “I think we can improve, finding shooting lanes. The skill involved there is holding the puck an extra half-second to try to create the lane, or getting rid of it a half-second sooner, while there is a lane. I think that’s where we’ve struggled at times.”
Prior to facing the Avs, the Bruins scored 51 goals in their 13 games this month. Only four of those were delivered by defensemen: McAvoy (2), Mike Reilly (1) and Brandon Carlo (1).
Carlo, now in his sixth NHL season, often has been identified by Cassidy as someone who could add goal production. He logs heavy minutes as the second pairing right side D’man. If he weren’t such a reluctant shooter, he might become more of an offensive factor. In 361 career games prior to Wednesday night, his career line was a meager 18-43—61, though the foundation of his game remains his defensive play.
“It’s not an easy thing to get points in this league, especially when you don’t get close to the net very often,” noted Carlo. “I feel like I’ve definitely had quite a few opportunities this year, whether it be shooting from the point, creating rebounds and joining the rush a little bit. Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don’t … it ebbs and flows. It’s something that I want to continue to push.”
Cassidy, for one, is all for it.
“Brando shoots the puck hard,” said Cassidy. “He just needs a little more confidence when he’s up there with it.”
Offensive production, “is an area our D’ corps lacks, or is lagging behind,” added Cassidy, “but we’re going to continue to try to build [that] into our game.”
Blidh back in lineup
Anton Blidh moved back into the Bruins lineup following a two-game absence, subbing back in for the injured Nick Foligno. Blidh rode on his familiar No. 4 LW spot with Tomas Nosek in the middle and Curtis Lazar on right wing.
Oskar Steen moved back to right wing, Foligno’s customary spot, on the third line with DeBrusk and Charlie Coyle.
Foligno, who appeared to suffer his upper body injury in a second-period slugfest Monday night with Anaheim’s Sam Carrick, did not make the trip and also will not play in Arizona (Friday) or Dallas (Sunday).
Linus Ullmark, who sat on Monday, allowing Tuukka Rask to make a second consecutive start, returned to net duties.
Ullmark entered the night with seven wins in his seven starts in January, having turned away 160 of 178 shots for an .899 save percentage. The Swedish stopper’s record for the season: 14-5-0 with a 2.55 goals against average and .915 save percentage.
Getting the job done
The three players chosen before Makar in the June 2017 draft, which was just weeks before he reported to UMass for his freshman season: 1. Nico Hischier, New Jersey; 2. Nolan Patrick, Philadelphia; 3. Miro Heiskanen, Dallas.
The Rangers’ Adam Fox, who looks to be a matching generational talent on the blue line, was drafted a year earlier at No. 66 by the Flames. He subsequently was dealt to the Hurricanes and forced his trade to the Rangers in ‘19 after playing his junior year at Harvard.
“I think Fox makes more plays while he’s in a less active [mode],” said Cassidy, asked to compare the two. “I think he’s one of the best at holding it, holding it, looking people off and then threading the needle.”
Makar is in perpetual motion.
“I think he does it more with his footspeed, his agility, lateral mobility,” noted Cassidy. “Both are excellent players that do a lot of damage, just a little different in their ability to move. But at the end of the day, both get it done.”
Good timing for Kadri
Kadri arrived in Denver in the summer of ‘19 with a six-year, $27 million pact he signed in Toronto. He is now 31 years old and on target to hit the unrestricted free agent market on July 1. Good year for him to post a career season … MacKinnon, a workhorse, entered the night with an average on-ice workload of 21:49, ranking him No. 4 among all NHL forwards this season for average TOI. The top three, prior to faceoff in Denver: Leon Draisaitl (23:01), Connor McDavid (22:41) and Alex Ovechkin (21:58) … Cassidy spreads out his time a bit more among his forwards. The top three for the Bruins: Brad Marchand (19:10), David Pastrnak (19:08) and Patrice Bergeron (18:22) … In his days with Toronto, Kadri was pitched out of back-to-back Round 1 playoff series vs. the Bruins. In 18, his smack on Wingels, down on his knees along the wall, came in Game 4. The following year, he drilled a two-hand crosscheck into DeBrusk’s face and neck in Game 2, moments after DeBrusk rubbed out Patrick Marleau with a clean check into the stanchion at the end of the Boston bench. The Leafs lost both series in Game 7 … The Avs might have only one soft spot: their penalty killing, which began the night ranked a lowly 27th in the league with a pedestrian 75.0 percentage kill rate. The Bruins ranked No. 10 at 82.7 percent …The Bruins entered with their power play ranked No. 6 at 25.6 percent, after going a sizzling 8 for 17 (47.1) over the previous six games, connecting at least once on the advantage in each of those games.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.