By Pat Graham
DENVER (AP) — The speedy Colorado Avalanche are suddenly the ones doing all the chasing.
Vegas had Colorado in defense mode as the Golden Knights tied their playoff series at two games apiece by taking both games at home. Game 5 is Tuesday in Denver.
“They make a play in the ‘D’ zone, they’re throwing it out into the neutral zone and coming at us 100 mph,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said.
That’s usually a method of operation reserved for Nathan MacKinnon and his Colorado teammates. But lately they just can’t get up to top speed on the physical and control-the-pace Golden Knights, who’ve made life difficult in the neutral zone to seize momentum in this best-of-seven second-round series.
“We’re confident in our game. We’re confident on the road,” Vegas coach Pete DeBoer said. “Our guys are excited about the challenge.”
A close series — expect anything different?
Not much separated the Avs and the Golden Knights in the regular season as they split eight head-to-head games. They also finished tied for the most points in the league, with Colorado claiming the Presidents’ Trophy based on more regulation wins.
The outlier was Game 1, when the Avalanche routed Vegas 7-1. But the Golden Knights had a very understandable reason — they didn’t play goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in that contest to give him some rest after a grinding seven-game series with Minnesota.
Since then, Vegas — outside of Mikko Rantanen’s OT winner in Game 2 — has been on the rush and Colorado on its heels.
“Right now, they’re making it harder on us than we are on them,” said Bednar, whose team has been bounced from the playoffs in the second round the past two seasons. “It’s not unique to our series where a team catches momentum. ... Now it’s up to us to take it from them.”
Colorado is banking on this turning the tide: A return home where the team has gone 4-0 so far in this postseason and won 13 straight dating to the regular season. The Avalanche were 22-4-2 at Ball Arena in the regular season. But two of the losses were to the Golden Knights.
“These guys rise to the occasion every time,” DeBoer said.
There’s a chance to make some history, too. The Golden Knights can become only the fourth NHL team all-time to win a best-of-seven series against the league’s top-seeded club after dropping the first two games. They would join Chicago, which accomplished the feat twice (1962 against Montreal, ’65 against Detroit) and Boston (2011 versus Vancouver), according to NHL Stats.
“Our guys aren’t a group that’s easily intimidated,” DeBoer said.
Especially against Colorado’s speed, which they’re finding a way to neutralize.
Colorado’s top line of MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog and Rantanen have a combined seven goals and five assists so far through four games against the Golden Knights.
In comparison, the trio had nine goals and 15 assists in a four-game sweep of St. Louis in the first round.
“I think they’re frustrated for sure,” Bednar said after a 5-1 loss in Game 4.
Meanwhile, Vegas’ second line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith has seven goals and seven assists, including a hat trick from Marchessault on Sunday.
“Right now we’re spending too much time in our half of the rink,” Bednar said.
The usually lowkey Bednar called out his team after a Game 3 loss in which they couldn’t get anything going.
It didn’t work on the scoreboard but Bednar did see some good.
“I’m confident our guys know, especially after the meeting the other night, what we need to do more of and what we need to eliminate in order to have success,” Bednar said. “It’s a mental grind. You have to face adversity head on.”
NOTES: As it stands, Avalanche F Nazem Kadri is slated to miss the seventh game of an eight-game suspension he received in the first round. Bednar was hoping to hear a decision on Kadri’s appeal soon. ... Colorado D Bowen Byram could make his playoff debut. He hasn’t played since getting injured March 25 against Vegas. “Going into a game against a team like Vegas is a tall task for a young player,” Bednar said. “We’ll balance all that stuff.”