DENVER – Minutes into Tuesday night’s historic Kraken playoff debut, feisty defenseman Will Borgen served notice his underdog team wasn’t just happy to be here.
Borgen laid a heavy hit along the side glass on Avalanche forward Arturri Lehkonen, who just happens to own two conference-clinching overtime goals and a Stanley Cup winner the past two playoff campaigns alone. The gauntlet had been thrown by the visiting challengers and continued to be throughout this 3-1 victory over the defending Cup champions, from the game’s very first goal to its final one.
That initial goal, moments after Borgen’s hit, came when Yanni Gourde pressured Avalanche defender Devon Toews into an errant behind-the-net clearance attempt right onto Eeli Tolvanen’s stick. The initial shot was stopped by Alexandar Georgiev, but Tolvanen quickly swatted home the rebound to stun the Ball Arena crowd just 3:26 in.
“It’s a good way to start the game, get the puck deep – everyone was doing it, get the puck deep get on the forecheck and hit a few guys,” said Gourde, whose team now leads this best-of-seven series 1-0 with Game 2 right back here on Thursday night. “And then, when we had a chance we put the puck behind the goalie. It was a great way to start the game.”
And the final goal, with the Kraken up by one four minutes into the third, would come off another forced turnover when Alex Wennberg grabbed a loose puck behind Colorado’s net and fed it to Morgan Geekie for a one-timed strike from the slot .
“Scoring a first goal is always big in the playoffs but at the end of the day, throughout 60 minutes I think we did a pretty good job. There were some lapses where they’re a talented group and their skill is going to take over. We’ve just got to clog the middle of the ice and make sure they take their chances from the outside.”
Even though Colorado had gotten a tying goal by Mikko Rantanen midway through the opening frame – tapping in a Nathan MacKinnon pass at the goalmouth – the Avalanche never really recovered from that initial Kraken surge the opening minutes. Instead, the Kraken kept on pressuring – and hitting – the Avs at every opportunity and Wennberg regained them a 2-1 lead just 80 seconds into the middle period by firing a wrist shot behind an out-of-position Georgiev from the right faceoff circle.
“Obviously, there was a lot of focus on them,” Wennberg said of the Avalanche. “But it comes down to our game. We talked about about skating a lot and moving our feet and moving the puck quick and it felt like we executed well.”
There had been question marks about how Avalanche goalie Georgiev would look in his first career playoff start and he certainly was outplayed by Kraken counterpart Philipp Grubauer. Though the Kraken were mostly effective at limiting Colorado chances the first half of the game, it was late in the second period that Grubauer truly stood out.
That period saw the Avs awarded the only two power play chances and a well-positioned Grubauer preserved his team’s lead with a handful of timely saves off one-timed opportunities. Then, when his team began giving the puck away in its own end, Grubauer again was at his finest, stopping J.T. Compher and Valeri Nichushkin on back-to-back chances from close in.
“He did a great job today,” Wennberg said. “I mean, he made some big saves for us to keep us in the game and that’s obviously what we need right now.”
The Kraken had not won a regulation game against a playoff team since beating the Bruins in Boston back on Jan. 12. Their most effective style can be an exhausting one to play and there were huge questions coming into this series about their ability to consistently maintain that suffocating, physical pace.
Then again, the Kraken had twice defeated Colorado in this building during the regular season and went 2-0-1 against them overall. They also nearly beat them here in January of last season, blowing a 3-1 lead late in the second period and losing by a goal.
But they’ve looked comfortable here throughout their brief history and certainly executed their game plan this time as well.
“One of the things we wanted to do is make sure that we started well,” Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said. “You don’t want to come into this building against this caliber of team and chase the game. So, we wanted to make sure we were on it from the start of the game. We started each period well. We were able to build a lead and that was obviously important for us in this game tonight.”
They’d talked plenty beforehand about needing to slow the Avs down with their forecheck and did just that throughout, forcing Colorado turnovers and limiting their ability to freewheel out of their own end. Still, Hakstol cautioned there were some breakdowns “where we didn’t manage the puck well” the Kraken will have to improve upon going forward.
“It’s a big task,” Hakstol said of beating the defending champs in their own building. “That’s one game. Like I said, there are a lot of areas we can play better in that we’ll work to do.”
Hakstol won’t have an on-ice workout Wednesday but does plan meetings and video sessions to tie up some of the loose ends that nearly got them in trouble before Grubauer bailed them out. Despite the win, he by no means feels the Kraken have an upper hand on anything just yet.
“We’re going to have to come back and play better two nights from now.”