Flames vs. Avalanche: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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It was a 23-point turnaround (84 to 107) for the Calgary Flames this season, and after missing the playoffs by 11 points a year ago they came back this season and claimed the top spot in the Western Conference with six points of cushion in the standings.

It produced their first division title in 13 years, only their second since 1995, and has them going into the postseason as a strong contender for the Stanley Cup.

They have award front-runners for the Hart Trophy (Johnny Gaudreau) and Norris Trophy (Mark Giordano) and a deep, talented roster that is littered with young players just now entering the prime of their career. They are not only a formidable threat to win it all this season, they are probably not going away anytime soon.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, saw their point total regress by five points this season but still managed to secure their second consecutive playoff appearance thanks to an 8-1-2 finish to the regular season that was driven by the firepower of Nathan MacKinnon up front and a spectacular goaltending performance from Philipp Grubauer.

When it comes to individual talent and star power, this series might be one of the most intriguing ones of Round 1 as the two teams boast eight of the top-40 point producers in the NHL this season. It might be the 1 vs. 8 matchup in the Western Conference, but it is probably going to be a lot closer than the gap in the standings might suggest.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Thursday, April 11, 2019, 10 p.m.: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames | SN, TVA Sports, NHL Network
Saturday, April 13, 2019, 10:30 p.m.: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 2019, 10 p.m.: Calgary Flames at Colorado Avalanche | CNBC, SN, CBC, TVA Sports
Wednesday, April 17, 2019, 10 p.m.: Calgary Flames at Colorado Avalanche | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Friday, April 19, 2019, TBD: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames | TBD
Sunday, April 21, 2019, TBD: Calgary Flames at Colorado Avalanche | TBD
Tuesday, April 23, 2019, TBD: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames | TBD

FORWARDS

CALGARY: The Flames have assembled an outstanding young core of forwards, led by MVP contender Johnny Gaudreau. Between him, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm the Flames have four of the top-30 scoring forwards in the league this season, and none of them are over the age of 25. In total, they had five 20-goal scorers, seven players score at least 13 goals, and they finished the season as the second-highest scoring team in the league behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning. They have impact players and depth, which is exactly what you need for a lengthy Stanley Cup Playoff run.

COLORADO: The story for the Avalanche for the past two years has been the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. It a trio that stacks up with any other team in the league and they can — and will — carry the entire offense. They have a little more depth than they did a year ago, thanks in part to the career year for Carl Soderberg, but this is still a team that will go as far as its big-three can take them. The big concern is whether or not Rantanen, who has been sidelined since March 21, will be ready for the start of the series.

ADVANTAGE: FLAMES. Both teams have some of the best and most productive forwards in the league, and there will be a ton of star power on the ice throughout this series, but the Flames are just a little bit deeper up front and get the advantage.

DEFENSE

CALGARY: The Flames are an outstanding defensive team and have what should be the Norris Trophy winner in Mark Giordano. At 35 years old he is still a workhorse on their blue line and was the best all-around defender in the league this season due to his offensive production (nearly a point per game) and shutdown play defensively. T.J. Brodie, Noah Hanifin, and Travis Hamonic round out a top-four that help the Flames be one of the best shot suppression teams in the league.

COLORADO: Tyson Barrie has always been an underrated player and Samuel Girard, one of the key pieces they acquired in last year’s Matt Duchene trade, looks like he is on track to becoming a really good defender. The rest of the defense is solid, if unspectacular. Ian Cole is a two-time Stanley Cup winner and a fearless shot-blocker, while Erik Johnson remains a mainstay in their top-four. The Avalanche are not as bad defensively as they have been in recent years, but they are not really a team that is going to lock you down, either.

ADVANTAGE: FLAMES. They have the best defender in the series (Giordano) and the better depth on the blue line. There isn’t a huge gap between these two teams in total goals against, but when it comes to things that the defense can control (shots on goal, scoring chances) the Flames rate significantly higher. Everything after that comes down to goaltending. Speaking of which…

GOALTENDING

CALGARY: Now we get to the concern with this Flames team. Mike Smith has been as bad as it can get in the NHL this season, and while David Rittich has been a nice surprise, he is a massive question mark going into playoffs because he is almost no track record to go by. Even more concerning is the fact he is rolling into the playoffs with an .897 save percentage in his 15 appearances since February 1. If he falters? Well … has Smith done anything to inspire confidence this season?

COLORADO: Philipp Grubauer had a miserable start to the season but has been lights out in the second half, especially down the stretch of the regular season as the Avalanche made their push for a playoff spot. For the season his .917 save percentage is well above the league average, and in his past 16 appearances dating to back to February 1 he is all the way up to .948. He is, at the moment, the hot goalie you hear about this time of year.

ADVANTAGE: AVALANCHE. Simply because right now Grubauer is the hot hand, Rittich is regressing at the wrong time of year, and they do not have a good solution after him.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Will David Rittich be good enough?

He better be, because the Flames really do not have another option. Their depth at forward and defense is as good as it gets in the NHL this season, and their only weakness is at the one position that could do the most damage to their chances. He has not played well down the stretch, and he will be facing a team that has three top-tier scorers and a pretty good power play.

Will they get enough offense after the big three?

The trio of MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Rantanen combined to score 41 percent of the Avalanche’s goals this season. There were only three other teams in the NHL that had a bigger percentage of their goals go to their top-three players, and keep in mind that Landeskog and Rantanen combined to miss 16 man-games due to injury. This is an extremely top heavy team offensively. The problem for the Avalanche is the playoffs often times come down to each team’s top players canceling each other out and the series being determined by one of two things: Goaltending, or depth. The Avalanche might have a slight edge in goal, but they do not have the advantage when it comes to depth.

PREDICTION

FLAMES IN 7. This seems like a series that has a chance to go the distance. The Avalanche are entering the playoffs on a bit of a role, they have the better goalie at the moment, and they might be able to steal enough goals on the power play to really make this close. In the end, though, the Flames do still have the deeper roster up front and on defense and that should — should — be enough to get them through to Round 2.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Islanders vs. Penguins
Jets vs. Blues
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Dougie Hamilton tricks Koskinen, scores from center red line (Video)

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Even though the Edmonton Oilers entered Tuesday’s game in a tie for first place in the Pacific Division there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about what they are actually capable of this season.

They are still the most top-heavy team in the league, relying almost entirely on one line for offense.

They have also been playing below .500 hockey for the better part of the past two months, and after Tuesday’s 6-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes have won just 11 of their past 25 games. Not great!

This most recent loss also included a rather embarrassing play as goalie Mikko Koskinen was faked out by Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton and allowed a goal from the center red line.

As Hamilton controlled the puck at the red line off of a face-off win, he made it look like he was going to simply dump the puck into the corner. That resulted in Koskinen starting to leave the net so he could cut off the dump-in and hopefully make a play to gain possession for his team.

The problem for Koskinen? Hamilton ended up putting the puck on net — while still looking at the corner! — and scored his 11th goal of the season, continuing what might turn out to be a Norris-worthy campaign.

You can see the play in the video above.

Giving up a red line goal is always tough for a goalie, but this one had to especially sting because the Oilers had just rallied from a two-goal deficit earlier in the period only to give up three consecutive goals — including Hamilton’s goal — to lose their second game in a row and their fifth in their past seven games.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Wild’s Eric Staal injured in collision with linesman (Video)

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Minnesota Wild forward Eric Staal had to leave Tuesday’s game against the Anaheim Ducks after he was involved in a scary collision with a linesman along the boards in the first period.

As Staal and Anaheim forward Derek Grant raced for a puck, Staal went head first into linesman David Brisebois and immediately fell to the ice. He remained down for several minutes before finally being able to get to his feet and skate to the bench with assistance. He did not return to the game, while the Wild have yet to offer an update on his status.

You can see the play in the video above.

It could be a significant injury for the Wild as they are already playing without veterans Mikko Koivu and Jared Spurgeon due to injuries at the moment. Staal entered Tuesday’s game tied with Jason Zucker for the team lead in scoring with 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in his first 30 games this season for a Wild team that has rapidly been turning its season around after a brutal start.

The Ducks ended up winning Tuesday’s game, 3-2, in a shootout. The Wild are still 8-1-4 in their past 13 games.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Eichel’s point streak reaches 14 as Sabres send Blues to third straight loss

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There is simply no stopping Jack Eichel right now.

The Buffalo Sabres’ captain extended his point streak to 14 consecutive games on Tuesday night by scoring the game-winning goal five minutes into the third period (then adding an empty-net goal), helping to send the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues to their third straight loss in a 5-2 decision.

The win helped the Sabres keep pace in the tight Atlantic Division playoff race and was their second in a row.

Let’s take a quick look at three big takeaways from this one.

1. The Eichel line keeps dominating. Eichel’s two goals on Tuesday give him 20 on the season — a mark that is good enough for third in the league behind only David Pastrnak and Alex Ovechkin — and currently has him on a 51-goal pace for the season. It is worth pointing out that the Sabres have not had a 50-goal scorer since Alexander Mogilny (76) and Pat Lafontaine (53) both hit that mark during the 1992-93 season.

This hot streak all started with a four-goal game back on Nov. 16 and he has not slowed down since then. After Tuesday’s game he is now up to 12 goals and 25 total points during the streak, leading the league in both categories during that stretch.

But it’s not just the play of Eichel that is making things click.

Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson, the other two members of the team’s top line, are also playing some outstanding hockey right now and helping to carry the team’s offense. Olofsson, who has in the middle of an outstanding rookie season, picked up two helpers on Tuesday to give him five goals and 10 assists over the past 14 games, while Reinhart’s two points (one goal, one assist) give him 10 points during that stretch.

2. The Blues fell asleep on Eichel’s game-winner. Seriously, what happened here?

The Blues have been one of the NHL’s best defensive teams going back to last season, but this was a terrible breakdown at the worst possible time. There is no reason for Eichel to be able to walk in front of the net completely uncontested like this in a five-on-five situation. Everyone just fell asleep here and made it way too easy for the league’s hottest player to get a wide open look. You are not really helping your goalie here at all.

3. This is the Blues’ first real slump of the season. Yes, they did lose four games in a row earlier this season but they lost two of those games in overtime and were at least able to collect a couple of points. This is the first time all year they have lost three consecutive regulation games, while they have been outscored by a 13-5 margin during that streak. It is also the first time since last November that they have dropped three consecutive regulation games. Over an 82-game season even the best teams are going to run into slumps like this, so it’s probably not a cause for huge concern at the moment. But the Blues still have to be a little worried about the state of their offense without Vladimir Tarasenko. Since he went out of the lineup in late October this has been one of the league’s worst offensive teams, currently sitting in the bottom-10 in shots and goals per game at both even-strength and in all situations. Yes, they are defensive team. But they still need to find more offense than this.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

There will be no World Cup of Hockey during 2021 season

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The NHL had been hopeful that the World Cup of Hockey could make its return in February of 2021, but commissioner Gary Bettman said on Monday that will not be happening as there is simply not enough time to schedule it that quickly.

The league will hold an All-Star game instead, while the next hope for the World Cup of Hockey seems to be during the 2024 and/or 2028 seasons.

Back in August deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league was cautiously optimistic that World Cup tournament could be held in February in 2021 if the NHL and NHLPA could agree to keep the collective bargaining agreement in place until September 2022.

That happened after a potential 2020 tournament was also pushed back.

That agreement between the NHL and NHLPA to keep the current CBA happened, but the timeframe to organize a tournament is simply not there at this point.

The NHL brought back the World Cup tournament back in 2016 with Canada winning it. It was the first time the tournament had been held since 2004. It held previously been held in 1996 (with the United States winning) and was a successor to the Canada Cup which had been held between 1976 and 1991.

With the league not participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics, the 2016 tournament was the last time NHL players were involved in a best-on-best international tournament. It is still not known if the league will participate in the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. NHL players had participated in every Winter Olympics tournament between 1998 and 2014 with the league taking a two week break.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.