Avalanche struggles shouldn’t come as surprise

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It wasn’t long ago that the Colorado Avalanche were viewed as one of the promising, young teams in the NHL. They made the playoffs a season ago, they had young players like Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Chris Stewart showing the Avs were a team on the rise. Then, just as quickly as it began, it all came to a crashing halt.

Entering tonight’s second game of a back-to-back (this time against Nashville), the Avalanche are in the midst of one of the worst stretches ANY team has endured in the last few years. They’ve lost 7 straight. Before that, they managed to lose 10 straight. In all, they’ve lost 19 of their last 21 games and if it weren’t for a pair of 1-goal wins against the Blues, they wouldn’t have anything to show for the last month and a half worth of games.

Last night the Mile High Mediocrities lost 6-2 at home vs. the Anaheim Ducks by giving up a 4 spot in the 2nd period. Under other circumstances, fans might hit the panic button and wonder how a team could fold like a cheap suit in a game down the stretch. But for this squad – and this city – it was just the latest in a horror movie that refuses to end.

The worst part is that it has made people wonder which is the real Avalanche team. Last season showed promise; this season they were one of the most exciting teams in the league. They were scoring in games at an incredible pace and the young players who were doing it only showed signs of getting better. The future was so bright, Timbuk3 was cool again. But the scoring was hiding a bigger problem—their defense was awful.

This season, they are giving up on average 3.49 goals against per game which is BY FAR the worst in the league. Last season, they were 17th in the league with a 2.78 goals against average. It doesn’t sound that great—but remember, they had a Vezina Trophy candidate in Craig Anderson between the pipes and they were still in the bottom half of the league. They were giving up over 32 shots per game (tied for 25th in the league) and expected Anderson to stand on his head for them to remain competitive. This season they’re giving up about the same amount of shots, except Anderson wasn’t the superhero he was last season. Predictably, the Avs team-stats started to regress to the mean.

Joe Sacco did what he could by putting in Peter Budaj when Anderson faltered. Unfortunately, Patrick Roy circa-1996 would have a problem playing behind this defense with the number of shots and Grade-A scoring chances faced every night. If they wanted to compete, they’d need someone like – well, Craig Anderson in Ottawa if they wanted be successful.

The poor record and porous play probably shouldn’t be as big of a surprise as it was. Terry Frei saw it coming around the trade deadline:

“The worst-case scenario is that last season’s surprising showing was a complete fluke, seducing the organization into overrating its talent — and triggering panic when that became apparent. Plus, with the Avs nearly $18 million under the NHL’s $59.4 million salary cap, Colorado has the third-lowest payroll in the league amid indications that Kroenke Sports doesn’t at all mind hugging the floor . . . and, in fact, is encouraging that approach.”

The season died a painful death after this nightmare stretch where the Avalanche couldn’t do anything right. In the middle of this stretch, they’ve watched a former-icon try to make a comeback and changed the fundamental direction of their team with the Erik Johnson trade. Gone is the power forward (Stewart) who was supposed to be their future top line winger. Gone is the blue-chip prospect (Shattenkirk) who was supposed to run the power play for the next 10 years. In their places, they picked up a guy who they hope can be a cornerstone defenseman who plays in every big situation and a 2-way forward who can help with their power play. They knew they needed to do a better job on shots and goals against and both players should help in the long-run. But there’s no questioning they paid a huge price and it will take time to integrate the new players into the team.

At this point, the Avalanche and their fans can only hope for improvement over the last few weeks and a great draft pick in June. Looking back two years ago, they had a rough season and were able to snag the face of their franchise in Matt Duchene. Last season was great, but there’s a better chance that this is the real Avalanche team than last year’s version. Assuming GM Greg Sherman is able to strike gold with their high-draft pick in June, the Avs will have some strong pieces going forward.

Rangers punch playoff ticket to wrap up night of clinched spots

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The New York Rangers weren’t ecstatic that Chris Tierney‘s 4-4 goal sent their game to overtime against the San Jose Sharks, but either way, getting beyond regulation punched their ticket to the playoffs on Tuesday night.

For the seventh season in a row, the Rangers are in the NHL’s postseason. They fell to the Sharks 5-4 in overtime, so they haven’t locked down the first wild-card spot in the East … yet. It seems like a matter of time, however.

The Rangers have now made the playoffs in 11 of their last 12 tries, a far cry from the barren stretch where the Rangers failed to make the playoffs from 1997-98 through 2003-04 (with the lockout season punctuating the end of that incompetent era).

New York has pivoted from the John Tortorella days to the Vigneault era, and this season has been especially interesting as they reacted to a 2016 first-round loss to the Penguins by instituting a more attacking style. The Metropolitan Division’s greatness has overshadowed, to some extent, how dramatic the improvement has been.

This result seems like a tidy way to discuss Tuesday’s other events.

The drama ends up being low for the Rangers going forward, and while there might be a shortage of life-or-death playoff struggles, the battles for seeding look to be fierce.

Oilers end NHL’s longest playoff drought; Sharks, Ducks also clinch

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There’s something beautiful about the symmetry on Tuesday … unless you’re a Detroit Red Wings fans, maybe.

On the same night that the longest active NHL playoff streak ended at 25 for Detroit, the longest playoff drought concluded when the Edmonton Oilers clinched a postseason spot by beating the Los Angeles Kings 2-1.

The Oilers haven’t reached the playoffs since 2005-06, when Chris Pronger lifted them to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

In doing so, other dominoes fell. Both the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks also punched their tickets to the postseason.

The Sharks, of course, hope to exceed last season’s surprising run to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

Meanwhile, the Anaheim Ducks continue their run of strong postseasons, even as their Cup win fades to the background ever so slightly. All three teams are currently vying for the Pacific Division title.

The Western Conference’s eight teams are dangerously close to being locked into place, as the Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues are all close to looking down their spots as well.

Want the East perspective? Check out this summary of Tuesday’s events from the perspective of the other conference.

Craig Anderson took his blunder hard – probably too hard – in Sens loss

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Members of the Ottawa Senators were quick to come to Craig Anderson‘s blunder (see above) in Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, and it’s easy to see why.

It’s not just about his personal struggles, either. When Anderson’s managed to play, he’s been flat-out phenomenal, generating a .927 save percentage that ranks near a Vezina-type level (if he managed to play more than 35 games).

Goaltending has been a huge reason why Ottawa has at least a shot of winning the Atlantic or at least grabbing a round of home-ice advantage, so unlike certain instances where teams shield a goalie’s failures, the defenses are absolutely justified.

Anderson, on the other hand, was very hard on himself.

You have to admire Anderson for taking the blame, even if in very much “hockey player” fashion, he’s not exactly demanding the same sort of credit for his great work this season.

Just about every relevant team in the East playoff races won tonight

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After Eastern Conference teams deserved a “C” on Monday, they generally passed Tuesday’s tests with flying colors. Sometimes they carved out three-point games when relevant teams faced off, too.

It’s almost bewildering trying to figure out where to start … so how about the top of the East?

Metro’s rich get richer

The Minnesota Wild deserve credit for fighting back from a considerable deficit, including overcoming an Alex Ovechkin hat trick (all on the power play). Ultimately, T.J. Oshie‘s overtime-winner gave Washington the 5-4 (OT) win.

Elsewhere in the Metro’s top ranks, Sergei Bobrovsky grabbed his 41st win of the season (3-1 win against the Sabres) to put Columbus three points behind the Capitals and two ahead of the idle Penguins.

Metro top three (all with 75 games played)

1. Capitals – 108 points
2. Blue Jackets – 105 points
3. Penguins – 103 points

Canadiens gain ground

The Montreal Canadiens handled the Dallas Stars 4-1 in The Epic Battle of the Benns. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Flyers beat the second-place Senators 3-2 via a shootout

Both the Maple Leafs and Bruins won their games, leaving Toronto one point ahead of Boston for third in the Atlantic.

Atlantic top five

1. Canadiens – 95 points in 76 games played
2. Senators – 91 points in 75 GP
3. Maple Leafs – 87 points in 75 GP

Bruins – 86 points in 76 GP
Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP

Finally, let’s look at the final spot in the East

OK, so there’s some overlap here. Why don’t we check on the most wild-card-relevant teams?

Third Atlantic spot: Leafs – 87 points in 75 GP

Final spot: Bruins – 86 points in 76 GP

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 82 points in 75 GP
Flyers – 80 points in 76 GP
Panthers – 77 points in 76 GP

Again, the Bruins won, as did the Flyers. The Lightning were idle. The Panthers fell to the Maple Leafs. Buffalo lost while Detroit and New Jersey are out of the running.

You know who deserves special mention outside of the top eight? The Carolina Hurricanes deserve such a distinction, as they are enjoying one of their hottest runs in franchise history after beating Detroit 4-1.

The overall message: just about any truly relevant team at least grabbed a standings point, with most winning games outright on Tuesday.

It doesn’t exactly thin the herd, but it keeps the door open for a fun race to the finish.