Avalanche ‘looked frozen’ in Game 4 loss to Stars

Avalanche ‘looked frozen’ in Game 4 loss to Stars
Avalanche ‘looked frozen’ in Game 4 loss to Stars

DENVER — For the Colorado Avalanche, the response needed to be there against the Dallas Stars in Game 4 of the Western Conference Second Round.

Unfortunately, the Avalanche played what may have been their worst game of the best-of-7 series in a 5-1 loss at Ball Arena. It was certainly their worst first period of the four games, and now they’ll have to come up with answers fast to avoid elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“We looked frozen in the first period. We were not moving, we were not skating. It looked like we were exhausted, and we should be the rest of the team,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said.

The Avalanche won their first-round series against the Winnipeg Jets in five games while the Stars needed seven to eliminate the Vegas Golden Knights.

“I thought we got better in the second, but it was still a struggle,” Bednar said. “Slow pace, slow to thinking, lack of execution. I didn’t feel like it was the guys weren’t trying, but everything felt like it was a struggle tonight.”

It may have been due to news the Avalanche got priority to the game.

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association announced that forward Valeri Nichushkin was placed in Stage 3 of the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program. Under the terms of the program, Nichushkin will be suspended without pay for a minimum of six months and then will be eligible to apply for reinstatement.

Nichushkin had 10 points (nine goals, one assist) in eight games in the playoffs. His nine goals are tied for the most this postseason with Edmonton Oilers forward Zach Hyman.

The Avalanche also were without defenseman Devon Toews because of an illness. Toews, part of the top pair with Cale Makar, has six points (one goal, five assists) in eight postseason games and is averaging 23:45 of ice time per game, second to Makar (25:45).

“I mean, it’s definitely tough,” Makar said. “Obviously you go home expecting both to play. It’s unfortunate the way that it ended up. At the same time, we have a deep group, we get (forward Jonathan Drouin) back, so there was a lot of confidence in the room.”

Unfortunately, the confidence didn’t translate onto the ice. The Avalanche looked disconnected, struggling to complete passes or muster anything against Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger. They were outshot 16-2 in the first period.

“That was probably their best period of the series, I would say, and it seemed like we weren’t clean enough getting out of our end, we weren’t clean enough getting into their end,” Avalanche forward Andrew Cogliano said. “They did a good job and ultimately got the lead on us. We just need to be better. We need to find ways to start the game better and create momentum that we can carry through the game.”

One of the few standouts for the Avalanche was goaltender Alexandar Georgiev, who looked outstanding in saving 15 of the 16 shots he faced in the first. The only shot that eluded him in the first was a short-handed goal by Wyatt Johnston, who capitalized on a turnover by Makar deep in his defensive zone and had to take a whack or two at it for it to go. Georgiev finished with 29 saves.

“That was a bad first period by us. Couldn’t generate anything and they were generating chances and ‘Georgy’ came up huge for the first period, and the whole game,” said Drouin, who played for the first time this postseason after missing the past eight games because of a lower- body injury. “He gave us a chance to win, and we didn’t play well enough.”

Once again, the Avalanche entered the third period trailing, this time 3-1. Once again, they tried to get back into it, with 12 of their 25 shots coming in the third. Once again, the Stars had the final say, adding two more goals to pad their lead.

The Stars now lead the best-of-7 series 3-1 entering Game 5, when they will have a chance to advance to the Western Conference Final, at American Airlines Center in Dallas on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN, SN, TVAS ).

The day started with the Avalanche looking to even this series. It ended with them getting bad news on two of their top players. Whether Toews returns for Game 5 remains to be seen, but no matter who is in the lineup, the Avalanche will need their best to keep the series alive.

“Just got to find ways to start better,” Makar said. “Just seemed like we were kind of sitting back at times early on, and definitely fighting it, almost like we were a little bit nervous. Obviously season is on the line now, so we’ve got to give them everything we have.”

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