Frei: Avalanche trying to answer nagging questions heading into playoffs

A month ago, as the Avalanche emerged from the All-Star Break with a 32-8-4 record, I asked Jared Bednar, Mikko Rantanen and Darcy Kuemper what they could hope to accomplish in the rest of the regular season.

Except for the obvious, of course.

win games.

Here are their answers.

Most notable was Bednar’s request for his team to tighten up, step up their control and defense by a notch.

They’ve been 9-4-1 since then and will set a 41-12-5 record against the impressive Hurricanes on Thursday night in Raleigh.

It’s another interesting measuring stick game rather than a monumental one.

Even a second consecutive avalanche loss at the end of the road trip should not be cause for overreaction or panic.

This team is too good to make excuses.

We saw that again after Tuesday night’s loss to the Devils, when giving up three games in four nights was challenged with the ferocity of a slow softball delivery.

Adrian Dater pointed out his signs of concern in his column here.

For me, one of the other big issues on the table is that even after this rating, after the All-Star break, Bednar has been open and aggressive about using the stretch run ever since — and even only leading up to the March 21 trading deadline – as a laboratory.

There are questions to answer including lines, penalty shootouts, goalies (here’s my updated take on that), defensive pairings and the use of enforcer Kurtis MacDermid in the postseason.

Bednar continues to often break up the long-standing top line of Gabe Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Rantanen, putting Andre Burakovsky on the left and sliding down Landeskog to play with Nazem Kadri and Valeri Nichushkin.

It’s not about blowing things up, it’s about looking for alternatives that might be available in the playoffs.

But it’s tempting to go too far.

Let the boys play – and play like they did when they built the league’s best record.

I know some think I’m fixated on leaving the top line together.

You believe that because I go back to my first column for Colorado Hockey Now.

I also understand that you don’t have to commit to anything in this sport, that it’s not an obligation to see what the top line looks like with Burakovsky.

The lines can be tinkered in no time at all – broken up, brought together again – depending on your mood and urge for change.

This includes how the other coach plays the matchups, especially when the Avs are out and running out of spare change. Also, we’ve seen that injuries can also force hands.

But stick to the top line.

Challenge Burakovsky, Kadri and Nichushkin to upstage them even in the playoffs.

Last week against Calgary, Bednar had this Kadri-centric lineup with the latest change against the Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm.

“I thought they did a fabulous job against that line and still created a lot of chances,” Bednar said.

Sunday night’s Avalanche home game against Calgary could be another preview of the Western Conference Finals, and Bednar addressed some of the matchup challenges following last Saturday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Flames. He also spoke of having to temporarily separate Makar and Toews. So this is a partial experiment, looking at similar dilemmas against good teams.

“We want to equip our offensive boys with offensive players, especially in the offensive zone situations,” said Bednar. “But they also have two really dangerous lines, at least, don’t they? You can’t play Devon Toews and Cale Makar with MacKinnon all night, especially if they don’t play Lindholm, Tkachuk and Gaudreau. You just can’t. It’s nice to have one of them on the ice against these guys. This is also a top line and they are our two best Ds. Either I separate them the whole game from MacKinnon or I split the pair.

“Those are some of the things we play with here. We have a few things that we’re going to look at in the second half. Cale Makar and Devon Toews should play Lindholm’s line all night if we’re just going to go by the kind of standard… But our tear has a rhythm and especially the McKinnon line with these guys and they’re really dangerous so we’re trying them to do a bit of both.”

The other question remains whether smart, undersized Samuel Girard is too big a defensive deficiency for the playoffs. Playing Jack Johnson or Erik Johnson with him as his big brother as much as possible – so to speak – limits Bednar’s options and Girard’s potential contributions.

I’m assuming two things, and I’ll admit that neither is a suspension: 1. Bo Byram will not play again this season and will postpone his attempt to return until next season. 2, Each major trade on deadline brings a versatile veteran to the front.

Finally, we come to the topic of “physics”.

The conventional wisdom is that last year’s Avs were too soft and needed to be harder against Vegas. Enter Kurtis MacDermid, who has definitely earned the trust and affection of his teammates and knows his role.

Do you wear it all the time to play limited minutes in the playoffs? As a defender or a striker or as a swinger whose “position” doesn’t really matter? Keep in mind that he never played forward during his time with the Kings.

MacDermid played wings against Calgary last Saturday, posting a 2:03 ice time and battling with fellow heavyweight Milan Lucic. His teammates believed it was an energy injection.

While struggling in the playoffs isn’t that big of an issue, having him around can serve a purpose — even if he’s in a suit. “Hidden” him as a 6th D is counterproductive and will pile up minutes for others to the max.

I expect Bednar will adjust how he uses MacDermid depending on the opponent and the situation. But if you’re trying to address what happened against Vegas and players think he’s part of the solution, you need to dress him up as a 12th forward. Whether it makes sense or not. His teammates, Landeskog in particular, have shown a willingness to monitor and respond and it’s not as if MacDermid will be on the ice with the stars. But he would be there. And that seems to matter to these guys.

Terry Free (terry@terryfrei.com, @tfrei) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been peer-voted for a state’s sportswriter of the year seven times—four in Colorado and three in Oregon. His seven books include the novels Olympic Affair and The Witch’s Season. His five non-fiction books include Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming, Third Down and a War to Go, March 1939: Before the Madness, and ’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming. of age.” He also worked with Adrian Dater “Save By Roy” was a longtime vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the Hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL in general. His site is www.terryfrei.com and his biography is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html

His column archive Colorado Hockey Now can be accessed here

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