Despite being only a month into the NHL season, despite no fans being in attendance, the bout between the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday night held a palpable energy and intensity.
The Avalanche, coming off of a COVID hiatus, are chasing the Knights in the standings and needed to make up ground after losing 1-0 on Sunday. Goals are not easy to come by against Vegas, meaning a Colorado squad missing Cale Makar, Gabriel Landeskog, Sam Girard, and Erik Johnson would have to rely on some of their depth to be able to solve a currently-on-fire Marc-Andre Fleury.
Losing a second straight game in a series where the teams meet four straight times would’ve put Vegas 8 points ahead of the Avs. That’s a large hill to climb in the standings, even with a majority of the season to still play.
Nathan MacKinnon’s first goal in almost a month gave Colorado an early 1-0 advantage, but their inability to score or even look threatening on three power play chances in the first period made the lead feel very tenuous. Vegas pressed in the middle frame and cashed in, ironically, on their first power play of the evening. With the Avalanche chasing the play and Vegas appearing to get stronger, there was potential for the game to slip away from Colorado.
Instead, the Avs received the depth scoring they needed to keep pace with the Knights. Just over a minute after Max Pacioretty’s snipe from the right circle put Vegas on the board, Joonas Donskoi shifted into the offensive zone with Brandon Saad just ahead of him. With stud defenseman Alex Pietrangelo standing between them, Donskoi elected to float a saucer pass towards his teammate and give Saad a chance to crash the net with some space. It was a high-skill play, one that didn’t seem likely to succeed with the way the Golden Knights’ defense had been playing.
But Donskoi converted it, laying it perfectly on Saad’s stick. The winger completed a power move to the front of the net and then poked it 5-hole to restore the Avalanche lead almost immediately.
Vegas brought pressure again early in the third, tying the game with a goal caused by a wild scramble in front of goaltender Philipp Grubauer. Both teams traded chances as the period trickled away, leading to a faceoff in the Golden Knights’ zone with 45 seconds left before overtime. Rather than roll out the big guns like MacKinnon or Mikko Rantanen, Avs’ coach Jared Bednar opted to send out the second wave of attack — Nazem Kadri, Saad, and Donskoi.
They rewarded his decision. Kadri won the faceoff back to Bowen Byram, who found a passing lane through the zone and fired the puck to Donskoi just in front of the net. Rather than drive the puck towards Fleury himself, Donskoi made the split-second decision to try and deflect the puck to Saad. The puck got deflected straight to Kadri, who fired the shot and earned Colorado the victory.
Donskoi Is Showing His Value
It’s no secret the Avalanche have struggled with injuries essentially since the first game of the season. Only six skaters have played in all 13 of the team’s contests. In the midst of such roster fluctuation, players who are able to be consistent become more valuable than ever. Tuesday’s game between Colorado and Vegas was a showcase of the utility Donskoi’s consistency is providing the club.
While the Finnish winger suffered alongside some of the other members of the Avs’ depth to start the season, he still managed to produce 2 goals and an assist through the first five games of the season. Since then, he’s only gotten better and more dangerous, just in time to be a strong help to the team’s depleted lineup.
His redirection off an Erik Johnson shot helped the Avalanche get on the board against the San Jose Sharks and essentially opened the floodgates for a 7-3 victory. He managed to feed Kadri the puck in a net-front scramble to break a scoreless game two nights later, leading to a triumph over the Sharks again.
He earned a point in each of Colorado’s three games against the Minnesota Wild, notably scoring the game-winning goal in their first meeting and then assisting on the game-winner in the third contest. The latter was the game the Avalanche were without MacKinnon, making the victory all the more significant.
After his heroics in Vegas, Donskoi is now on a point-per-game pace through the last seven contests. In all, he’s compiled 5 goals and 5 assists and is on pace to score over 40 points in a 56-game season. He probably won’t get there, as he’s currently shooting 39% and hasn’t reached 40 points in his entire career. Last year, in his first season with the Avalanche, he would go through five or six-game stretches where he wouldn’t be found on the scoresheet but then would have scoring tears seemingly out of nowhere.
While it’s still very early in the season, Donskoi finding ways to score in a majority of the games so far has shown what he’s capable of if he remains consistent. The points he’s earned have all been important, usually coming when the Avs are down by a goal or tied. Clutch play is difficult to measure, but Donskoi stepping up in critical moments has been invaluable to Colorado. It’s a skill he’s displayed throughout his career:
The Avalanche have gone 8-0-1 in the games that Donskoi has registered a point. They’ve gone 0-4-0 when he hasn’t. If he is able to continuously make good plays and develop offence, Colorado will only get better. A division title or a Stanley Cup becomes all the more attainable, and he’ll get closer to cementing a legacy in Colorado.
As an unprecedented NHL season continues, he’ll have plenty of opportunity.