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.

Ducks cement Pacific lead as Getzlaf continues his mammoth March

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By the end of Sunday night, the Anaheim Ducks removed all doubt: they’re on top of the Pacific Division.

Now, it’s not the sort of substantial lead that the sliding San Jose Sharks squandered; Anaheim merely leads the Sharks and Edmonton Oilers by two standings points after beating the New York Rangers 6-3.

With everyone at 75 games played, it’s kind of nice to enjoy the clarity that comes with a clear lead (though the Sharks and Oilers will disagree):

Pacific top four (all teams with 75 games played)

1. Ducks – 93 points (38 ROW, 41 W)
2. Sharks – 91 poitns (40 ROW, 42 W)
3. Oilers – 91 points (37 ROW, 41 W)

Flames – 88 points (38 ROW, 42 W)

The Ducks are now on a four-game winning streak and managed an 8-1-1 mark in their last 10 contests.

With all due respect to Patrick Eaves‘ two goals, it’s Ryan Getzlaf who’s really playing outstanding hockey. He generated four assists in this one, giving him eight helpers in his past four games. He now has a whopping 20 points in March.

A lot going on – fight included – between Corey Perry, Brendan Smith (Video)

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If there’s one thing that’s undeniable from the clip going on, it’s that Corey Perry and Brendan Smith squeezed a lot of activity (carnage?) into a single shift.

Early on in Sunday’s New York Rangers – Anaheim Ducks game, both player delivered hits that were at least borderline dangerous. After that, they traded punches in a pretty solid fight (especially since they seemed a little tired because, again, this was a fairly elaborate sequence).

It’s way too messy a sequence to call neat, but there is something efficient about trading hits and then getting into a fight. That’s a mini-hockey feud in short order.

If you want a pretty moment to counteract all that, check out the great puck movement on this 3-on-1 goal for the Rangers:

Penguins lose to Flyers and lose another key player to injury

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PITTSBURGH — Even with a ridiculously long injured list that would be the foundation of a pretty good hockey team, the Pittsburgh Penguins still found a way to go 8-1-3 in their previous 12 games entering Sunday’s contest against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The injuries finally seemed to start catching up to them on Sunday in a 6-2 loss, extending their current losing streak to three games, matching their season long.

While the loss certainly impacts their pursuit of the top spot in the Metropolitan Division (they remain three points back of the Washington Capitals), and even their quest for home ice advantage in the first round, it is still not the worst thing to come out of Sunday’s game.

The worst thing for them would be the fact the Penguins lost yet another key player to an injury when forward Conor Sheary had to leave the game mid-way through the first period.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said after the game that Sheary is dealing with a lower body injury and that right now he is considered to be day-to-day. It was initially believed that Sheary was injured blocking a shot, but Sullivan insisted that was not the case and that it happened in the offensive zone at some point in the first period.

With Jake Guentzel still sidelined due a concussion he suffered in a recent game against the Buffalo Sabres, that means two-thirds of the team’s recently assembled top line (Sidney Crosby-Sheary-Guentzel) is now sidelined due to injury. Sheary’s injury is especially concerning given how good he has been on Crosby’s wing dating back to the 2016 playoffs. Entering play on Sunday Sheary was averaging nearly a point per game (50 points in 54 games) with almost all of that production coming at even-strength.

They had yet another scare in the third period on Sunday when defenseman Brian Dumoulin had to briefly leave the game and head to the locker room after he was elbowed in the side of the head by Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds.

On Sunday, all of the injuries finally seemed to be too much with the Flyers pretty much dominating the game over the final two periods.

The Flyers received goals from six different players (Jordan Weal, Valtteri Filppula, Dale Weise, Jakob Voracek, Radko Gudas and Shayne Gostisbehere) in the win and outshot the Penguins by a 24-15 margin over the final 40 minutes.

“That wasn’t a good effort and at this point of the season we can’t afford to have those,” said Penguins forward Matt Cullen after the game. “I don’t think that was a typical effort for us. I don’t think we had a lot of life, to be honest.”

Even more than winning games the rest of the way the biggest concern for the Penguins has to be getting their list of injured players healthy and finding a way to avoid adding to it, something that has proven to be difficult in recent weeks.

At this point, whether they win the Metropolitan Division or not, they know their path through the Eastern Conference playoffs is very likely going to have to go through both Washington and Columbus, and they are going to need their full complement of players to do it.

One of the biggest factors in winning a Stanley Cup is having all of your key players in the lineup come playoff time.

A year ago the Penguins did.

Right now they are not even close to having that.

Video: Dumoulin shakes off elbow, Sheary out day-to-day for Penguins

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Barring a major comeback, the Pittsburgh Penguins look like they’re going to lose to the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday. Their injury losses might be just as big.

On the bright side, it seems like Brian Dumoulin was able to shake off an elbow from Wayne Simmonds. You can watch the hit, which didn’t draw a penalty, in the video above.

Meanwhile, Conor Sheary has been missing since the first period with what might be a lower-body injury.

The Penguins’ list of injuries is already pretty ridiculous, so if one or both of these players miss significant time, tonight will sting deeper than a setback on the scoreboard.

Update after the Penguins’ loss: Seemingly good news, if very early and vague: