Pressing question: Are the Avs for real?

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One of PHT’s 10 pressing questions in advance of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs…

The Colorado Avalanche went from being second worst team in the NHL to Central Division champions in the span of just one season.

That’s remarkable under any circumstances, but especially when you factor in that the team didn’t change substantially over that stretch beyond the addition of rookie forward Nathan MacKinnon and, the man that’s received most of the credit for the turnaround, coach Patrick Roy.

At the same time, certain indicators have left people wondering if the Avalanche are playing above their heads and in danger of coming back to Earth.

One of the big reasons for that fear is that, from an advanced possession statistics perspective, Colorado is roughly the same team that finished in the Western Conference basement a year ago.

Teams have a tendency to dismiss those statistics and some fans might find them confusing, but basically Corsi and Fenwick are a way of gauging puck possession by looking at how many shots are taken (including those that miss the net). Corsi also includes blocked shots whereas Fenwick doesn’t. The idea is simply that if you’re controlling the puck, you’re controlling the game and that will lead to more long-term success.

The Toronto Maple Leafs found this out the hard way in 2013-14, as their horrid Corsi/Fenwick numbers eventually caught up to them and they collapsed. Colorado isn’t nearly as bad in that regard, but the team is near the bottom of the pack.

Toronto: Corsi 42.1 percent (29th in NHL), Fenwick 41.5 percent (29th in NHL)

Colorado: Corsi 47.4 percent (25th in NHL), Fenwick 46.8 percent (27th in NHL)

All stats courtesy Extra Skater

The way the Avalanche have overcome that deficiency is through strong goaltending. Semyon Varlamov faced 2,013 shots in 2013-14, which is 125 more than any other goalie in the NHL. If he wasn’t also one of the league leaders in save percentage — he finished third, at .927 — there’s a good chance Colorado wouldn’t have made the playoffs.

So is that it then? Colorado might have some defensive weaknesses, but Varlamov is capable of covering them up? Well, maybe not. For one thing, Varlamov has very little playoff experience and none since 2010, so the man at the center of the Avalanche’s success is an X-Factor just based on that.

Additionally, the Avalanche are dealing with the loss of Matt Duchene and two-way forward John Mitchell, which might exacerbate the issues that have been laying beneath the surface.

In the end, the best counterargument to the Avalanche’s shortcomings might be pointing the finger at the team they drew as a first round opponent: the Minnesota Wild.

Minnesota ranked 29th in the league in shots on goal per game in the regular season, ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres. The Wild also aren’t leaps and bounds better than Colorado from a Corsi perspective (48.2 percent, 23rd in the league). Had Colorado been forced to play against Chicago, St. Louis, or even Dallas, it would be an entirely different story, but given that Minnesota is a team that has puck possession issues of its own, that red flag in the Avalanche’s game might not be exposed.

The flip side is that this question won’t be put to rest with the Avalanche beating them. Getting past Minnesota would lead to them facing a team that might be far more qualified to exploit Colorado’s weaknesses.

For more Pressing Playoff Questions, click here.

Ovechkin shrugs off Caps’ Game 1 loss in very Ovechkin way

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You know, it happens. Maybe not always in those exact words.

The Washington Capitals carried the play during portions of their 3-2 Game 1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and even down 1-0 in the series, just about every player seemed happy with their overall game.

(Granted, Braden Holtby picked apart two of the three goals he allowed, and so on.)

Still, Alex Ovechkin shrugged off the disappointment in a way that wasn’t quite Rated R, but probably ranks in the PG-13 range:

The penalty element is interesting, though.

When asked after the loss about the lack of power plays, Matt Niskanen merely offered a “no comment.”

The Penguins experienced some sprawling moments, yet they avoided taking a penalty each time. Often, when a team carries long sequences of play, they’ll go on the PP (especially with home-ice advantage) … but not the Capitals in Game 1.

via Natural Stat Trick

It’s a situation to watch as the Capitals hope to even the series against the Penguins with Game 2 coming on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. (You can watch online, via the NBC Sports App and follow the livestream here).

Holtby takes blame for two big goals in Caps’ loss to Pens

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It’s just about a consensus that the Washington Capitals believed that they generally played a strong game despite falling 3-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Braden Holtby‘s teammates likely wouldn’t agree with his assessment that the Game 1 loss is on his shoulders, but the perennial Vezina candidate took the blame for Sidney Crosby‘s first goal of the night and Nick Bonino‘s game-winner.

Noting that the Penguins are a dangerous rush team – making them a different threat than the Toronto Maple Leafs – Holtby believes that he should have had his glove in position to stop the 1-0 goal. He said he’s capable of making such a stop and “will next time.” Check out Crosby’s two goals below, with Holtby having a beef with the first one:

It’s really difficult to place too much blame on Holtby for giving up Nick Bonino’s game-winner, as it seemed like a great rush play that few goalies would be able to stop.

Judge for yourself in the highlights:

The Penguins were ultimately able to take a 1-0 series lead, but the Capitals seem capable of shrugging off questions about frustrations, even with naysayers starting to gain confidence in claiming that there will be more than the same.

If Washington’s going to get over this big hurdle, Holtby is likely to be a big part in doing so.

Fleury, Penguins hang on for Game 1 win against Capitals

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The Pittsburgh Penguins pulled off a 3-2 Game 1 win against the Washington Capitals, but Thursday’s thriller probably prompted a sigh of relief.

(Washington, meanwhile, might have uttered a sigh at such unpleasantly familiar feelings.)

The first period ended 0-0 in part thanks to Jake Guentzel‘s sprawling “kick save.” Business really picked up in the second after Sidney Crosby raced off to two quick goals, only for Alex Ovechkin to give Washington a shot thanks to a booming goal and some physical play.

It sure felt like this one might head to overtime, especially after Evgeny Kuznetsov was tying things up and flapping his arms like wings. That was not to be, however, as Nick Bonino took advantage of a pretty area pass to beat Braden Holtby for the decisive tally.

Now, it was only decisive because Marc-Andre Fleury was at the top of his game. Oh, and also because the Penguins did a collective Guentzel impression in frantically denying a tying tally.

Makes you want to wipe some sweat from your brow, eh?

The Capitals dominated by just about every statistical measure … except, of course, goals on the scoreboard. Pittsburgh will gladly take that 1-0 series lead, then.

Expect a desperate Washington team in Game 2, which airs at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday. You can watch it online and via the NBC Sports App (click here for the livestream link).

Karlsson makes difference for Senators vs. Lundqvist, Rangers

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Swedish superstars Henrik Lundqvist and Erik Karlsson were both stupendous in Game 1 between the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators.

Still, it was Karlsson’s game-winning goal (from a seemingly impossible angle) against Lundqvist that made the difference as the Senators beat the Rangers 2-1 on Thursday. With that, the Senators are up 1-0 in the series.

That Karlsson goal really deserves a special look.

Whether you blame that 2-1 tally on Lundqvist or not, the Rangers would be foolish to do anything but praise their red-hot franchise goalie. He stopped all 21 Senators shots in the first period and ultimately made 41 out of 43 stops in defeat.

Craig Anderson was strong in his own right, mind you, stopping 34 out of 35 shots (including all 28 at even-strength) to help Ottawa take that tight contest.

Anderson’s strong play highlights the fact that Rangers – Senators doesn’t merely come down to Lundqvist vs. Karlsson … but even so, both Swedish superstars really did stand out in this one.

Game 2 airs on NBC at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday. You can also watch online and via the NBC Sports App; click here for the livestream link.