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Justus Annunen, Nathan MacKinnon help Avalanche blast Blackhawks again

One of the most hyped first-year players in NHL history arrived at Ball Arena on Monday night, and for the second time in five days Colorado Avalanche rookie goaltender Justus Annunen outshined him.

Nathan MacKinnon continued to dominate on home ice with a four-point night, a couple of guys snapped long goal-scoring droughts and Annunen made 37 saves as the Avalanche cruised past the outmatched Blackhawks in a 5-0 win.

“It was a game we’re supposed to win. Sometimes those are tough,” MacKinnon said. “A lot of pressure on us, especially after a poor game against Nashville. It’s nice to get back in the win column.”

Annunen has now put together four consecutive strong starts for the Avalanche, including back-to-back shutouts against Chicago. He earned plenty of praise in a 6-3 loss at Tampa Bay that included two empty-net goals and some obvious defensive breakdowns. Then he was rock solid at Detroit in a 2-1 loss.

The past two performances against the Blackhawks have been outstanding. In both contests, Chicago had a pretty strong first period and challenged him. Phenom Connor Bedard even had a broken-play breakaway in the second period, but Annunen did not fall for a series of head fakes and calmly turned aside his shot.

“He’s been awesome,” Avs defenseman Cale Makar said. “He’s giving us a chance to win every time he plays. That’s all you can ask for. He’s making some unreal saves, so it’s fun to watch right now.”

Bedard, who before the game downplayed a slash on the wrist by Avs defenseman Josh Manson last week, was held off the scoresheet for the third time in four tries against the Avalanche this season.

“The boys were playing awesome in front of me,” Annunen said. “It’s very nice to play my first game of the year at home. The crowd was awesome and it was very fun to play.”

MacKinnon stretched his season-long home point streak to 30 games midway through the first period. Chicago’s Jason Dickinson gambled to try and pick off a pass from Devon Toews to MacKinnon, and when he missed it left the Hart Trophy candidate all kinds of space to pick his spot.

The Avs added a second goal late in the first. Jonathan Drouin scored his first since Jan. 13 after some nifty work in the neutral zone by Samuel Girard and Zach Parise forced a turnover. Colorado controlled the second period and had oodles of chances to extend the lead, including multiple shots off the post, before finally finding some breathing room.

Makar tallied his first goal in 12 games on a feed from MacKinnon. He turned away from the net and looked to the heavens in relief after the puck went in, while his defense partner Toews skated over and mimicked the “monkey off the back” celebration.

While Makar has been critical of his play at various points this season, he now has six points in the past six games. His assist on MacKinnon’s opening goal also gave him sole possession of the franchise record for career assists by a defenseman. He set the franchise record for points by a defenseman last week against Dallas.

MacKinnon created the fourth goal and scored the fifth as well. With four points, he tied Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov at the top of the NHL leaderboard with 105.

He stormed into the offensive zone after an icing and one-handed a shot at the net, then went and got his rebound and sent the puck to Caleb Jones. Parise directed Jones’ blast from the top of the zone into the net to make it a 4-0 advantage.

“Just feel good this year on home ice, for whatever reason,” MacKinnon said. “Obviously getting a lot of bounces as well. I think a lot of guys are playing really well at home and I’m getting some points.”

This was Jones’ first game at any level against his older brother Seth, and he did say during a first intermission interview that it would be great to score in this game.

Annunen has now stopped all 61 shots against the Blackhawks in the past five days and 89 of 91 in his past three outings. His play has allowed Avs coach Jared Bednar to give starter Alexandar Georgiev more regular rest, and it might remove an item (veteran backup goaltender) from general manager Chris MacFarland’s shopping list between now the NHL trade deadline Friday afternoon.

“If he plays like that, he’s going to play a lot,” Bednar said.

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