Is Colorado’s rise a fair example of what might happen in Buffalo?

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The Buffalo Sabres are frankly expected to be one of the worst teams in the league in 2014-15. It’s easy to see why: They’re a rebuilding club coming off of a season where they posted a 21-51-10 record. They could have added six wins last season and still finished in last place. For that matter, they could have scored 37 more goals and still ranked 30th offensively.

The short-term situation is so bleak that there are Sabres fans rooting against their team as they’ve already abandoned hope of them being competitive next season and just want them to be able to draft a potential superstar in Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.

Chris Stewart, who came to Buffalo from St. Louis in February as part of the Ryan Miller trade, doesn’t want the fanbase to write the Sabres off.

“Look at the Colorado Avalanche two years ago,” Stewart recently said. “They were a last-place team, and they were arguably one of the best teams in the league last year. So the past is the past. You look at our team now and there are 13 or 14 new faces. So we come in and think of last year as an anomaly.”

Of course you’d be hard pressed to find a player that wants to lose or, for that matter, one that is going to paint anything other than an optimistic picture going into the season, but does Stewart have a point? Does Buffalo have a chance to follow in Colorado’s footsteps?

Let’s move past the obvious answer, which is: Of course. Anything can happen, so obviously there’s a chance that Buffalo will make the playoffs. But is it a big enough one to give Stewart’s argument validity?

Well, first off, he is correct that the team will look very different than the one that opened the 2013-14 season, which right off the bat actually makes this story a lot different than the one in Colorado. The Avalanche team that surprised the hockey world in 2013-14 wasn’t substantially altered from the one finished with a 16-25-7 record in the lockout shortened 2013 campaign.

Additionally, different isn’t automatically better. The Sabres have lost Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek for example and you can make an argument that no one on their current roster is better than those two players — at least not yet as some of their youngsters have high ceilings.

A few things did change in Colorado though. Patrick Roy took over as the team’s head coach and, in addition to giving them new hope, he joined goalie coach Francois Allaire in helping Semyon Varlamov take a huge step forward. Varlamov was at the center of the Avalanche’s success as they were bombarded with shots all season and relied on him to stand tall.

Meanwhile, Buffalo struggled largely in spite of Miller’s goaltending last season so while the new combination of Michal Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth might prove to be solid, the single biggest change that bolstered the Avalanche wouldn’t have quite the same effect on the Sabres.

What Buffalo needs is for its defense to improve, but more than that, they need someone to find the back of the net. Colorado saw its offense improve in part thanks to a strong rookie season from Nathan MacKinnon and while the Sabres have some promising young forwards that might step up, they have a far bigger gap to overcome.

The Avalanche’s offense wasn’t great in the lockout shortened campaign, but Buffalo’s offense last season was statistically the worst of the 21st century.

It’s that gap that will be difficult for the Sabres to overcome in a single campaign. They do have some noteworthy scoring threats such as Matt Moulson, Cody Hodgson, and Tyler Ennis, but their top two lines don’t look overly promising on paper.

So maybe Colorado isn’t an ideal example for Buffalo, but the thing about a young team is that you never know quite what will happen. It seems realistic to assume that this will be a season of growing pains for the Sabres, but if they find their groove early in the season, then they might surprise people.

The Buzzer: Auston Matthews’ late-game heroics; Pens move into top spot in Metropolitan

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Players of the Night:

Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers: Giroux notched a goal and two assists in Sunday’s win over the New York Rangers. The goal was the 200th of his career. He’s been incredible this year. The Flyers forward is up to 69 points in 59 games, which puts him on pace to score 96 points. Giroux now has four multi-point performances in his last six outings.

Travis Konecny, Philadelphia Flyers: Like his teammate Giroux, Konecny also picked up a goal and two assists. He’s now accumulated 18 points in 15 games. Konecny is currently riding a four-game point streak.

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: Even though the Oilers are struggling this season, McDavid has found a way to remain productive. His hat trick in Sunday’s tilt against the Avalanche was his third of the season. After scoring 100 points last year, he’s on pace to hit 98 right now.

Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins: Guentzel’s three-point night helped propel the Penguins to victory against the Blue Jackets. Guentzel now has five points in his last four games.

Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks: Pavelski had a three-point night of his own against the Dallas Stars. If you scroll a little lower, you’ll see his spin-o-rama goal. The veteran isn’t having his best season, but he’s managed to pick up nine points in his last six games.

Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets: The Jets are an offensive machine that not many teams can stop right now. Connor picked up a pair of goals against the Panthers, which means he’s already scored 19 times in his first full NHL season.

Highlights of the Night:

Taylor Hall comes up clutch against the Hurricanes:

If you like spinning backhanders, Joe Pavelski has you covered:

How about this save from Semyon Varlamov:

The hand-eye coordination from Evgenii Dadonov is pretty ridiculous:

Sometimes it takes two to keep the puck out of the net:

Connor Hellebuyck made a sweet save of his own against the Panthers:

Factoids of the Night:

Auston Matthews‘ late-game heroics against Detroit:

The two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions are in top spot in the Metropolitan Division:

Hall is en fuego:

Scores:

Flyers 7, Rangers 4

Oilers 4, Avalanche 2

Devils 3, Hurricanes 2 (OT)

Penguins 5, Blue Jackets 2

Maple Leafs 3, Red Wings 2

Sharks 5, Stars 2

Jets 7, Panthers 2

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Golden Knights don’t want to focus on big picture

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LAS VEGAS (AP) The Vegas Golden Knights have done an excellent job of not looking too far ahead in their inaugural season.

It has served them well during their amazing run as an expansion team, all the way to the top of the NHL standings.

After Saturday’s 6-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens, the Golden Knights lead the NHL with 82 points.

According to the league, Vegas is the first expansion team in its inaugural season to hold the outright lead in the standings this late into a season – 58 games played – besting the 1967-68 Kings, who led the league through 19 games on Nov. 24, 1967.

But as veteran goalkeeper and three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury said, there is a point in the season every team is either trying to get into the playoffs or stay positioned where they are for the postseason.

“Right now, we’re in good shape,” Fleury said. “We are aware where we are, but we can’t just sit back. We have to keep chasing those points night after night.”

The cliche of “one game at a time” has transitioned into playing with a sense of urgency with seven weeks left in the regular season.

Four games into a seven-game homestand, Vegas has won three straight since losing to Philadelphia on Feb. 11. The Golden Knights responded with wins over Chicago, Edmonton, and the Canadiens, outscoring the three by a combined 15-6.

“We’re in a good spot right now, we’re happy where we are, but we’re a team that’s always going to have something to prove,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said.

“I think everyone probably watches the standings, a little more closer in the West than the East. It’s one thing about having a lot of points early and being in first place in the West.

“It’s a little different with this group, we all have something to prove still. We’re an expansion team, no one ever thought we’d be here, where we are right now.”

Nevertheless, McNabb said coach Gerard Gallant has done a good job of keeping his players focused, ensuring they’re performing their best each game.

“The whole point of taking it day by day is you’re not focused on the big picture and I feel like that’s a good approach for our team to have,” defenseman Shea Theodore said.

“You can’t look too far ahead, it’s just kind of how we’re rolling and we’re doing a good job with that. I feel like we’ve done a good job of showing the league we’re for real.”

Even team owner Bill Foley has gotten in on the act of not looking too far ahead. After Saturday night’s win, Foley expressed concern over Theodore’s recent throat infection that kept him out of the lineup, he spoke about Pierre-Edouard Bellemare getting injured during the game and said while he is happy with his team’s success it’s important not to become complacent.

“But it is fun, it’s great,” Foley said. “One thing we did when we did the expansion draft, it was a lot of hard work, and we put a lot of planning into it. We had five mock draft sessions in the expansion draft. We knew other teams as well or better than they knew themselves. So, we knew what we were getting. And (general manager) George (McPhee) did a phenomenal job in making some key deals. The result is what we have.

“We have guys that have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder and they want to play hard, and they really play hard against their former teams.”

With Saturday’s win over one of the NHL’s Original Six teams, Vegas improved to 22-4-2 at T-Mobile Arena, matching the 1979-80 Hartford Whalers (22-12-6) for the most home wins by a team in its first season.

It doesn’t get any easier for Vegas, which is 14-1-1 against Pacific Division teams, and faces key games this upcoming week against Anaheim on Monday, Calgary on Wednesday and Vancouver on Friday.

“The schedule is going to be tough with a lot of games coming up,” Fleury said. “We gotta find a way to be consistent all those nights and keep fighting. We still gotta focus playing one game at a time. You don’t want to think too far down the road. Every game is important.”

Veteran defenseman Deryk Engelland agreed.

“We’ve been doing a good job all year of taking it one game at a time and treating every game as a must win. It’s a tight division, it’s a tight conference and we just have to take it one game at a time.

“Come April 8, we can maybe gear up from there, but from now `til then it’s one game at time and get ready for the next one.”

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Should Zach Hyman’s goal on Petr Mrazek have counted?

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There may or may not have been a controversial call in Sunday’s game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.

With the score tied at zero in the first period, Zach Hyman appeared to have opened the scoring for the Leafs, but the goal was waved off because Red Wings netminder Petr Mrazek‘s mask came off.

As you can tell from the video below, Auston Matthews‘ shot catches Mrazek in the mask. Right before Hyman buries the buck into the net, Mrazek shakes his mask off because a strap snapped out of place. It’s definitely not an easy call to make in the moment.

Take a look for yourself:

Here’s what rule 9.6 of the NHL rulebook says about these kind of plays:

When a goalkeeper has lost his helmet and/or face mask and his team has control of the puck, the play shall be stopped immediately to allow the goalkeeper the opportunity to regain his helmet and/or face mask. When the opposing team has control of the puck, play shall only be stopped if there is no immediate and impending scoring opportunity. This stoppage of play must be made by the Referee. When play is stopped because the goalkeeper has lost his helmet and/or face mask, the ensuing face-off shall take place at one of the defending team’s end zone face-off spots.

When a goalkeeper deliberately removes his helmet and/or face mask in order to secure a stoppage of play, the Referee shall stop play as outlined above and in this case assess the goalkeeper a minor penalty for delaying the game. 

It’s clear that Mrazek removed his helmet intentionally, but he only did so because at least one of the straps snapped off. Also, the referee could have blown the play dead because he assumed that one of the two Red Wings in the slot would take control of the puck. Instead, both Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi whiffed on it.

But according to the rule, the play can only be stopped if the opposing team doesn’t have an immediate or impending scoring opportunity. Was Hyman’s chance an immediate or impending scoring opportunity? It sure looks like it, but that’s at the official’s discretion.

There’s a bit of a grey zone with this rule, so it’s hard to say if the referee applied the rule correctly or not.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Connor McDavid spoils Nathan MacKinnon’s return

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Sunday’s game between the Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche was supposed to be all about Nathan MacKinnon‘s return to the lineup, but Connor McDavid had other ideas.

The Oilers might be struggling, but McDavid had some individual success this month. On Sunday, the Oilers captain picked up his second hat trick of the month in Edmonton’s 4-2 win over Colorado.

In eight games this month, the 21-year-old has accumulated an impressive 11 goals.

Here’s his first tally of the game:

McDavid finished the game with a plus-3 rating, five shots on goal and a huge save in 19:52 of ice time. That’s right, a huge save. With the Avs leading 1-0 in the first period, McDavid prevented the opposition from going up by two.

His second tally tied the game at two, while his hat-trick goal was scored into an empty-net.

According to NHL Public Relations, He’s the first Oiler to score three hat tricks in a season since Petr Klima in 1990-91.

Meanwhile, MacKinnon returned the lineup after missing eight games with an upper-body injury. He had a minus-2 rating, four shots on goal and one hit in 22:20 of ice time. Only Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen had more ice time among Avalanche forward.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.