Stars put Avalanche on brink of elimination with Game 4 rout

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Dallas Stars center Wyatt Johnston (53), Dallas Stars center Joe Pavelski (16) and Dallas Stars left wing Mason Marchment (27) celebrate after Johnston scored a goal against Colorado Avalanche goaltender Alexandar Georgiev (40) in the second period during Game 4 of the second round of the 2024 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Ball Arena in Denver on Monday, May 13, 2024. Dallas Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen (4) skates in towards the celebration. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

For about 16 minutes Monday night, the shorthanded Colorado Avalanche, buoyed by a sensational start from goalie Alexandar Georgiev and a full-throated Ball Arena crowd, looked capable of pulling off the improbable.

Alas, reality set in soon after that.

The Dallas Stars took full advantage of an Avalanche team missing both Valeri Nichushkin and Devon Toews, and cruised to a dominant 5-1 victory in Game 4 to take full control of this second-round series and put this once-promising Colorado hockey season on the brink.

Dallas will have the first of three chances to knock Colorado out of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Wednesday night in Game 5 at American Airlines Center.

“We looked frozen in the first period. We were not moving. We were not skating,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “It looked like we were exhausted and we should be in the rested team. I thought we got better in the second, but it was still a struggle. Slow pace, slow thinking, lack of execution. I didn’t feel like the guys were not trying, but just everything felt like it was a struggle tonight.”

Good news about the Avalanche roster, in the form of Jonathan Drouin making his Colorado postseason debut, was quickly washed away about an hour before the game. The NHL and NHLPA announced that Nichushkin has been placed in Stage 3 of the NHL-NHLPA Player Assistance Program, which carries a minimum six-month suspension without pay.

Nichushkin led the team with nine goals in the first eight games of this postseason and was also tied for the NHL lead with Edmonton’s Zach Hyman. He also set career-highs in goals (28) and points (53) this season despite missing nearly two months after his most recent absence while in the players assistance program.

“We’re not using that as an excuse,” Bednar said. “We lose a good player in Val today. We (also) add a good player in Drouin. And he played well tonight, (Drouin). I thought for the amount of time he had off, I thought that he had good legs and played hard and played well. I think that’s not an excuse for our team, for us.”

If that wasn’t enough of a demoralizing blow, defenseman Devon Toews was also ruled out of the lineup with an illness. The Avs were forced to face the top team in the Western Conference without two of their top five players.

Georgiev was spectacular early, but the Stars poured on the offensive pressure in a way they have not been able to against the Avalanche in the previous three games of this series. Colorado had a power play late in the first period, and that was the beginning of the Avs’ undoing — on the ice at least.

Cale Makar turned the puck over in his own zone, and then Sam Steel and Wyatt Johnston combined for three shots in quick succession. Georgiev got the first two, but not Johnston’s rebound at 15:37.

Johnston scored again 5:46 into the second period to give Dallas a 2-0 lead. At that point, the Stars had a 22-4 advantage in shots on goal. When the Avs did find some time in the offensive zone, the guys in white were able to clog shooting lanes and keep the puck away from goalie Jake Oettinger.

Miro Heiskanen’s shot from the right point pinballed its way into the net behind Georgiev to give the Stars a 3-0 lead just past the halfway point in the second.

“Slow to check. Starts with myself,” Makar said. “I feel like every time I touched the puck tonight, it was bobbling, so just fighting it. In those circumstances, you’ve got to find a way to play simple, it’s unfortunate. I feel like a few of those are definitely on me. We can be a lot better in different areas, but definitely feels like we’re just kind of chasing after them at times in our zone.”

Colorado Avalanche left wing Artturi Lehkonen (62) has a chance against Dallas Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger (29) in the first period during Game 4 of the second round of the 2024 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Ball Arena in Denver on Monday, May 13, 2024. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)
Colorado Avalanche left wing Artturi Lehkonen (62) has a chance against Dallas Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger (29) in the first period during Game 4 of the second round of the 2024 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Ball Arena in Denver on Monday, May 13, 2024. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

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