The Colorado Avalanche’s power play was lethal as usual Tuesday night, even without injured star Nathan MacKinnon.
Valeri Nichushkin scored twice with the man advantage while Darcy Keumper stopped 44 shots as Colorado edged the Calgary Flames 2-1 in a battle between Western Conference division leaders.
With the score tied 1-1 in the third, Mikko Rantanen spotted Nichushkin in front and sent a perfect pass across the slot that the Russian winger steered past Jacob Markstrom at 10:52.
“Gutsy win by our group,” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar. “I thought our team was highly committed on the defensive side of things.
“Power play steps up at the end gets us a big win.”
Colorado’s man advantage has been deadly of late. The unit converted two-of-three chances against Calgary and has clicked on 15-of-36 attempts over the last 12 games (41.7 per cent).
“Power play, we need them to step up,” Bednar said. “It’s going to be tight.
“That’s how it works down the stretch and into the playoffs. It’s hard to find space and create scoring chances five-on-five and when you get one or two (power plays), you’ve got to try to capitalize on them.”
Colorado (47-14-6) won the season series with Calgary 2-1 while improving to 12-1-1 when missing MacKinnon (lower body) to injury. The Avalanche’s leading scorer was hurt in a third-period fight with Minnesota’s Matt Dumba on Sunday.
Nazem Kadri took MacKinnon’s spot on the Avs’ top line with Nichuskin and Rantanen.
“Definitely a credit to the depth of the team,” Kuemper said. “The willingness and ability for guys to step up their game and make up for the guys that are missing.”
Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog (knee) is also currently sidelined.
Tyler Toffoli scored for Calgary (40-18-8), which hosts Los Angeles on Thursday. The Kings are second in the Pacific, seven points behind the Flames.
Meanwhile, Calgary’s penalty kill struggled for a second straight game. Before then, the Flames had allowed five power-play goals on home ice in 32 games (a total of 86 chances).
But Calgary has now surrendered five power-play goals in its last two contests on just eight chances.
“That’s two games with very soft, individual mistakes,” said Flames coach Darryl Sutter. “First one tonight, puck should go down the ice, forwards had two cracks at it.
“The second is just a straight read by the defenceman. Those are mental mistakes. Very simple.”
Mikael Backlund, part of the Flames top penalty-kill pairing up front, said it’s up to Calgary to rebound next game.
“We know it can be better,” he said. “And we know we’ve been really solid all year,.
“We’ve had one or two games during the year where similar to this, we let too many in, and we rebounded and we play really solid after that.”
Chris Tanev, Calgary’s ice-time leader on the penalty kill, said the Flames must get back to working harder.
“We were killing well until obviously letting three goals in a period against Edmonton and tonight was all special teams and they got two and we got one and that was the difference in the game,” Tanev said. “We’ve got to bear down on our clears, on our entries, and back to outworking PPs that are out there.”
After going winless in his two previous starts, Kuemper improved to 31-9-3.
“The guys were really focusing on the defensive side of things,” he said. “It really allowed me to see the shooting lanes and when I’m seeing it (and) I’m in my good spots, I like my chances of making the save.”
Jacob Markstrom (31-13-7) stopped 28 shots.
The Flames opened the scoring at 9:31 of the second. They capitalized on a two-man advantage with Toffoli taking Rasmus Andersson’s pass and scoring his 18th goal of the year inside the goalpost from 30 feet out.
Matthew Tkachuk assisted on the goal, giving him 12 points (four goals, eight assists) during a five-game point streak.
The lead lasted less than five minutes with Cale Makar’s shot deflecting in off Nichushkin, who was screening Markstrom.
In a scoreless and mostly uneventful first, the best chances came from Calgary in the final minute via the game’s first power play. But Kuemper made four saves in short order, including Tkachuk at the side of the net.
“You had to make a real good shot to beat him tonight and everything else he was taking care of,” said Bednar. “I thought it was a real steady performance from him.”
Sean Monahan returned to the lineup for Calgary after being a healthy scratch the past two games ... Trade deadline acquisition Arturri Lehkonen made his debut for the Avs. He centred a line with Andre Burakovsky and Alex Newhook ... Colorado D Samuel Girard (lower body) missed his ninth game, but he’s back skating now.