Avalanche defeat Penguins, clinch playoff berth

PITTSBURGH– The Colorado Avalanche clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 6-4 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday.

Nathan MacKinnon scored twice, Mikko Rantanen had two assists to reach 400 points in his 400th NHL game, and J.T. Compher and Darren Helm each had a goal and an assist for the Avalanche (50-14-6), who became the first team to reach 50 victories and have won four in a row. Darcy Kuemper made 41 saves.

Colorado, which defeated Pittsburgh 3-2 at home Saturday, leads the Minnesota Wild by 15 points for first place in the Central Division.

“We have a talented group, right? High expectations,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “It’s hard not to like the season we’ve had to this point. … I really like what I’m seeing. I feel like we’re still improving at this point of the year and that’s what we want to do right to the bitter end.”

Video: COL@PIT: MacKinnon extends lead with 2nd of night

Jeff Carter had an assist to reach 800 NHL points, and Jake Guentzel had a goal and an assist for the Penguins (41-20-10), who have lost five of seven. Tristan Jarry made 26 saves.

Pittsburgh, which is third in the Metropolitan Division, fell four points behind the New York Rangers for second and trails the first-place Carolina Hurricanes by six points.

“Every game is big. Every point is important,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “We’re scratching and clawing, and doing our best to put our best game on the ice to try to win games.”

MacKinnon gave the Avalanche a 1-0 lead at 2:45 of the first period. After taking a pass from Andre BurakovskyMacKinnon drove to the net and sent a pass intended for Rantanen off the stick of Penguins forward Bryan Rust.

Rust tied it 1-1 at 5:30 from the right face-off circle on the rebound of Marcus Petterson‘s slap shot. The goal gave Rust an NHL career-high 57 points (23 goals, 34 assists) in 49 games.

“I thought we were pretty good,” Rust said. “There are obviously a few breakdowns there. When you give a team like that good opportunities, a team with really good players like that, they’re going to make you pay.”

Compher put Colorado ahead 2-1 at 9:53 of the second period on a rebound in the slot.

MacKinnon made it 3-1 at 12:00 on a wrist shot through traffic from above the left circle.

“We’ve built a strong culture here. A lot of amazing players,” MacKinnon said. “Doesn’t mean anything. We won the Presidents’ [Trophy] last year (for the best regular-season record in the NHL). Doesn’t matter if you’re an 8 or 1 [seed]we just want to get in and try to do some damage.”

Video: COL@PIT: Manson hammers home 1st goal with Avalanche

Evan Rodrigues cut it to 3-2 at 17:43 by driving to the net for a backhand shot. Rantanen stopped it short of the goal line, but Avalanche defenseman Devon Toews knocked it in while attempting to dig it out of the crease before Penguins forward Kasperi Kapanen could score.

Josh Manson extended the lead to 4-2 with a slap shot from the point at 1:01 of the third period.

Helm pushed it to 5-2 with 4:57 remaining, taking a pass from Logan O’Connor for a wrist shot we have 2-on-1.

“We controlled O-zone play,” Rodrigues said. “I think, for the most part, controlled a lot of the game. But when you play a team like that, so lethal off the rush, they’ll take advantage of it. I think we let them do that.”

Guentzel pulled Pittsburgh within 5-3 by backhanding a puck out of midair with 1:24 left before Artturi Lehkonen‘s empty-net goal made it 6-3 with 53 seconds remaining.

“It’s two big wins for us against a team like that, two games in a row,” Avalanche forward Alex Newhook said. “I think getting those wins definitely add some confidence to our group and some knowledge that we can play these games.

Mike Matheson cut it to 6-4 on a slap shot with 31 seconds left.

NOTES: The Avalanche (70 games played) are the third fastest team to reach 50 wins in the past 25 seasons, behind the Tampa Bay Lightning (66) in 2018-19 and the Washington Capitals (69) in 2015-16. They are the ninth team in NHL history to get 50 wins in 70 games or fewer. …Avalanche Defenseman Bowen Byram had two shots on goal and three hits in 15:02 of ice time in his first NHL game since Jan. 10. He was recalled Monday from a conditioning assignment with Colorado of the American Hockey League. Byram was placed on injured reserve Jan. 12 because of concussion-related issues. … Avalanche forward Valery Nichushkin did not play because of an illness unrelated to COVID-19.

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