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Frank Seravalli

TSN Senior Hockey Reporter

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The cauldron in Colorado finally bubbled over after a month of pent-up frustration.
 
Cameras captured Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon and coach Jared Bednar in a heated exchange on the bench on Wednesday night in Calgary in the dying seconds of Colorado’s sixth regulation loss (1-6-2) in their last nine games.
 
MacKinnon threw a Gatorade bottle in disgust and after trading words with Bednar, he was so fired up that a calming arm from captain Gabriel Landeskog caused him to fall backwards on the bench.
 
Neither Bednar nor MacKinnon was asked about the exchange by reporters postgame.
 

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The reigning Hart Trophy runner-up seemed to mouth something to Bednar the effect of: “Do your job.” Bednar appeared to keep his calm.
 
Regardless of what was said, Wednesday night’s blow-up was the first public glimpse into just how ugly it’s been for the Avalanche, who have sunk like a stone in the standings in recent weeks. 
 
The Avs began the season by bolting to the top of the standings. They held the top spot in the Western Conference (17-7-5) into Dec. 7.
 
The wheels have somehow fallen off since.
 
Colorado is just 3-9-3 over the last calendar month. The team with the third-most goals in the West has been outscored by 14 in this stretch. They now hold just a two-point edge on the final playoff spot - and they'd be in much worse shape had Anaheim not concurrently lost nine straight.
 
It’s easy to understand MacKinnon’s frustration. It’s hard to blame ‘Mac’ or Mikko, the NHL’s best one-two punch this season.
 
MacKinnon and Rantanen have continued to carry the Avalanche, scoring at the same ridiculous pace that they started the season. With 68 points, Rantanen is three off Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov for the league lead. MacKinnon is right behind him, tied for third with Calgary’s Hart Trophy candidate Johnny Gaudreau with 66 points.
 
They were utterly dominant on Wednesday at the Saddledome. MacKinnon was on the ice for all three goals the Avalanche scored against Calgary. Rantanen netted a goal and assist, MacKinnon scored the Avs’ first goal. 
 
They’ve been dominant all season. There have been just three games in the 44 played that the Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen line has not tallied at least one goal - and only one of those games has been during this 15-game slide.
 
No, the culprit has been Colorado’s goaltending, not even the obvious lack of depth.
 
The Avalanche outshot the division-leading Jets (41-21) and Flames (35-16) on back-to-back nights on the road and lost by a combined five goals.
 
Semyon Varlamov has dropped the ball and Philipp Grubauer has been equally bad in net. The Avalanche have just an .865 save percentage over the last calendar month. Varlamov started the season with a .930 save percentage in his first 18 appearances; he has an .849 mark since then. Grubauer hasn’t been much better at .876.
 
Up front, MacKinnon’s line is light years ahead of the rest of the team. Only two other Avalanche forwards have cracked the 20-point plateau this season in Carl Soderberg and Alex Kerfoot.
 
As the third-youngest coach managing the NHL’s youngest roster, Bednar has seemingly made peace with the fact that the Avs are a one-line show.
 
Bednar stressed in late October that he treated MacKinnon’s line differently than the rest, trying to engage them in the process. He said he facilitates regular “complete line meetings with them instead of the full team.”
 
“Those guys have a lot of input,” Bednar said on Oct. 23. “We get them sitting down as a line and communicating things that they might not have on their own. We want to try and spur that conversation as much as possible, because they’re playing 21 to 22 minutes a night – a third of the game – and we want to make sure they’re communicating before, during and after the game.”
 
Wednesday may have been a blip on the radar, a momentary outburst in a long season, a scene that would not have gone noticed if it occurred in the privacy of the dressing room. It’s out there now. The bell can't be unrung. The question will be in how the Avalanche respond.
 
One month ago, the conversation surrounding Colorado was whether GM Joe Sakic could find the complementary pieces to strengthen the team around that star-studded line. The thought was maybe one or two key additions might be enough to turn the Avalanche into a true Stanley Cup contender.
 
One month later, the Avalanche have leveled out in a way that’s made them appear completely average, a team that’s suddenly just clinging to their playoff lives.
 
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli