Avalanche squander a Nathan MacKinnon performance for the ages, miss chance to advance

The plot was set: the face of the Avalanche franchise, taking his team to heights not seen in two decades. Nathan MacKinnon has put together a performance to last, complete with grace and rudeness and everything in between. He should be the icon, the one who would assert himself when his team needed him the most.

But stories can twist like a knot. Pucks bounce in weird ways and teams lose three-goal leads. That’s what the Avalanche did Wednesday when they lost 5-4 to St. Louis in Game 5 in overtime. Instead of going all the way to the Western Conference Finals, which would have been the case had they won, the Avalanche are making their way back to Game 6.

“They played with more desperation than we did in the second half of the game,” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, who didn’t criticize the team’s performance but did address mismatches and technical glitches. “In the last six, eight minutes they’ve been pushing and they’re pushing down with us and we made some mistakes with the puck. We didn’t get any pucks out. We had pucks on our racquet. They had this desperation to keep plays alive.”

Colorado led 3-0 in the second, 3-1 in the third and 4-3 with less than a minute to go. MacKinnon was the reason, and that started early in the game. With less than four minutes, Artturi Lehkonen was leading the Avalanche with a three-on-two rush. Instead of passing to Gabriel Landeskog, who simultaneously crossed into the offensive zone, he switched to MacKinnon, who was just behind. The Colorado star adjusted his position to prevent defenseman Nick Leddy from blocking a shot and then slung the puck past goaltender Ville Husso. He went on to add a power play goal and an assist to Landeskog’s second-half tally, giving the Avalanche a three-lead.

All of this set up what was looking like a season-defining game, one for MacKinnon’s career-highlight role. With less than three minutes to go and the 3-3 draw, MacKinnon captured the puck from behind the Avalanche net. He scanned the ice and then began cantering forward. He got past Jordan Kyrou entering the offensive zone and then looped the puck around Leddy. Suddenly he had space in front of the net and flicked the puck past Husso.

“Big speed coming through the neutral zone,” Bednar said. “One of the most beautiful goals I’ve seen in a long time.”

“They were changing and tired,” MacKinnon said, “so I got some space and made a move and hit it.”

The goal marked MacKinnon’s third goal of the night, and he banged his stick on the ice in excitement. Hats rained down on the ice, forcing an interruption of about five minutes.

“But it’s over. We lost,” MacKinnon said. “The playoffs aren’t about points and attention or whatever. It’s all about getting wins.”

And while MacKinnon was picking up points, the Avalanche couldn’t hold on to a win. And the mistakes started long before the blinding goal.

With the Avalanche leading 3-0 late in the second game, Vladimir Tarasenko found space to capture a loose puck in the gap between Jack Johnson, Logan O’Connor and Lehkonen. He shot through the traffic and past Darcy Kuemper.

Then came the third period, in which the Avalanche generated just 38.54 percent of the expected percentage of goals per natural stat trick.

“Sometimes you heel a little and you get a little cramped,” said Landeskog. “You want to try to stay aggressive, but you also don’t want to miss an order or anything like that. They sometimes try to play it safe and other times it comes back to bite you.

“It worked tonight.”

Midway through the third half, Pavel Buchnevich stickhandled his way through a group of Avalanche players before meeting Robert Thomas in front of the net. The forward beat Kümper for his first goal of the playoffs, and suddenly it was a one-goal game. Kyrou equalized five minutes later after Kuemper allowed a rebound.

“You have to stay aggressive, keep playing your game and believe in what you’re doing,” Bednar said. “It starts with competitiveness and puck decisions. As play went on there, they had a little bit more fighting and we didn’t, and our puck decisions weren’t good.

After MacKinnon’s legendary sequence, it looked like Landeskog had a chance to end the game with an empty goal. But as he skated, Justin Faulk pinched him along the boards and he didn’t get a shot. That left the door open to St. Louis, and Thomas got through again.

With a minute remaining, Tarasenko netted the puck from the goal line and, despite Kümper stopping the shot from an odd angle, he allowed a rebound.

“I don’t think Kuemps was able to find it,” Bednar said. “I didn’t think Cale (Makar) could find it.”

Thomas could, and he did. He hit the puck over the goal line and sent the game into overtime. Bednar had fewer problems that play than the sequence before it, when Colorado couldn’t get the puck out of their defending zone.

And so the game went into overtime, where the most unlikely players can become leading men. And on Wednesday night, it was Tyler Bozak who defeated Kuemper one last time to close the game. The goaltender finished the game with a save rate of .833 and -1.82 goals saved per evolving hockey above expectations.

“You sulk for three minutes and then you move on,” Landeskog said. “It’s playoff hockey. It’s not meant to be easy.”

Now the Avalanche have a simple task, though perhaps not an easy one. If they win either of their next two games, they advance to the Western Conference Finals. If they don’t, they’ll have to live with two meltdowns: the one in Game 5 and the series as a whole.

“It’s starting to look like you’re either the hammer or the nail on this show,” Bednar said. “We have to go and be the hammer.”

(Photo by Nathan MacKinnon: Andy Cross / MediaNews Group / The Denver Post via Getty Images)

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