Times-Call (Longmont)

Avs’ comeback falls short

Annunen falters in third career start as New Jersey defeats Colorado

- By Bennett Durando bdurando@denverpost.com

The Avalanche tested their recent invincibil­ity by putting a prospect in the net against a top-five scoring team in the NHL, as if just to show how good they’ve been.

The flex almost worked. Colorado lost 7-5 to the Devils on Wednesday after digging and almost climbing out of a 5-1 hole in the second period. Alexandar Georgiev, who had started eight of the previous nine games, got the night off before Saturday’s critical divisional tilt at Dallas. In his absence, Justus Annunen’s third career start was a slog with 22 saves on 28 shots faced.

It culminated in sarcastic cheers from the home fans when he stopped the puck during the middle stanza. But a few minutes later, the 22-year-old was stopping breakaways and making windmill snags with his glove, earning back the applause in earnest (if maybe a bit guilty) form.

The rapid mood swing in Ball Arena was caused by a burst of three unanswered goals in a span of 2:04 — on four shot attempts (the other hit a post.) Down 5-1 seven minutes into the period, Mikko Rantanen redirected a shot by Josh Manson for his 41st goal. Scoring

is often contagious for the Avs, especially their star players. Soon, Nathan Mackinnon was collecting a pass from Bo Byram, dangling around two Devils and taking advantage of Vitek Vanecek’s open fivehole.

Rantanen and Mackinnon have both scored in five consecutiv­e games (six straight for Rantanen), combining for 12 of the team’s 23 goals during that stretch.

But on trade deadline week with his job under scrutiny, it was second-line center J.T. Compher who sent the place into mass hysteria another 30 seconds later with a superb individual play on the rush. His top-shelf shot narrowed the gap to 5-4.

Suddenly it was all Avs. Valeri Nichushkin was in the middle of the action, but he skated to the bench with his shoulders sagging at one point after failing to convert a chance. The what-ifs stung extra after New Jersey scored on Annunen again before intermissi­on.

But Jared Bednar chose to ride the rookie in the third, and Nichushkin kept chugging along, too. A Sam Girard shot pinballed from the goalie’s blocker to Artturi Lehkonen to Nichushkin at the net front. He capitalize­d this time.

Colorado’s slippery start was a smorgasbor­d of ugly defensive-zone giveaways and poor net protection by Annunen. Newcomers Lars Eller and Jack Johnson teamed up for a blunder along the boards 60 seconds into the game, leading to an Ondrej Palat goal. Manson struggled to defend Annunen’s crease twice during a bad Avalanche shift that ended with a puck stuffed under Annunen’s blocker.

Another goal started when Mackinnon couldn’t get a zone-clearing pass through New Jersey sticks. Another started with a Devon Toews turnover along the boards.

It amounted to the kind of sloppy, riveting game that fans love and Bednar typically hates. During a third-period review of Nichushkin’s goal, a young fan swiftly solved a Rubik’s Cube and caused Ball Arena to go bananas. The big screen cut to Nuggets player Bruce Brown several times throughout the comeback, dubbing him the “Rally Bruce.”

But the Avs’ bid at a third four-goal comeback in franchise history was finally halted by a last-minute empty-netter.

 ?? ANDY CROSS — THE DENVER POST ?? Devils right wing Nathan Bastian (14) celebrates his goal against the Avalanche on Wednesday.
ANDY CROSS — THE DENVER POST Devils right wing Nathan Bastian (14) celebrates his goal against the Avalanche on Wednesday.

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