On a team defined by its youth and path towards redemption, maybe no member of the Colorado Avalanche better symbolizes this than defenseman Nikita Zadorov. Deemed lazy and immature by his drafting team, the Buffalo Sabres, he has faced an uphill climb both as the face of the Colorado end of the Ryan O'Reilly trade and as a player the Avalanche continue to wait to blossom into an impact defenseman.
At just 22-years-old, the hulking blueliner has struggled to find consistency despite opportunities first under head coach Patrick Roy and now under Jared Bednar. Zadorov has been a healthy scratch five times this for the Avalanche and it was telling when they acquired defenseman Sam Girard in the Matt Duchene trade that Girard immediately slotted next to Tyson Barrie and then Erik Johnson, showing an immediate trust from the coaching staff.
As Zadorov finally worked his way back into the lineup, his minutes have begun rising from the 13-15 range and into the 17-20 area, a very positive sign for a player whose inconsistency has been nothing short of maddening so far. Tonight against the visiting Winnipeg Jets, Zadorov scored the key goal for the Avalanche as he tied the game at two with just over eight minutes remaining in the contest. He took a pass from forward Blake Comeau, broke into the Winnipeg zone uncontested and fired a wrist shot that seemed to catch all of the Jets off guard. Just like that, he brought life to a Pepsi Center crowd that seemed almost bored at the time.
"Winnipeg D thought I was going to just shoot it down and [Comeau] made a great pass and I just had to go up there and make the shot," Zadorov explained of his third goal of the season. "Coaches want our D to be active on the rush and put the puck on net. That's what we do and getting good bounces."
The goal gave Zadorov two goals in consecutive games and had it not been for an extremely questionable goaltender interference against the Avalanche earlier in the season, "Big Z" would have four on the season already. Rarely lacking in confidence, Zadorov said the burst of offense was nothing surprising to him.
"The offense has been there all the time," Zadorov laughed.
One of the things Zadorov credits to his recent run of strong play is one of the things we often forget about in this business - sports are fun!
"I've been feeling great inside, enjoying playing hockey, literally," Zadorov explained. "It pays off, you know? I've been working hard and everything all the time and finding my game finally."
As the game headed to overtime, the Avalanche were seeking another player to step up and make the play that would secure two points for the Avalanche. Unsurprisingly, star forward Nathan MacKinnon emerged from the pack, scoring the game-winning goal in overtime...twice.
The first overtime winner from MacKinnon was called back after a review determined defenseman Tyson Barrie was offside as the puck came into the Jets' zone. Colorado's bench argued Barrie was only offside because a Jets player put him there. Alas, Bednar gathered his players and used the review as a free timeout of sorts and calmed his players down. Shortly after, MacKinnon scored again and this one counted, giving Colorado the win for real this time.
"It was unfortunate that it got called back," MacKinnon said. "I think it was offside but [Barrie] got tripped up but it's good we scored. Anyway, we had time to do something about it afterward."
MacKinnon registered an assist on Colorado's first goal of the night, giving him 28 points in 23 games this season, the majority of which have come in November after a slow start. What does the star center think of his 100-point pace? Not much.
"I was playing well the first month," MacKinnon stated. "I played a lot better than I did tonight and got no points. My whole life isn't wrapped around points. I'm just focused on playing well and focusing on the process. Whether I get points or not, that's the after effect."
While the Jets outshot the Avalanche 26-15 in the game's final two periods, Colorado's kids found a way to dig deep and pull two points from their Central Division rivals. The win moves Colorado to 1-1 on their current five-game homestand as they host the New Jersey Devils for game three on Friday night.