Jason Pominville

Getty

WATCH LIVE: Buffalo Sabres at New York Rangers

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Buffalo Sabres

Benoit PouliotJack EichelKyle Okposo

Evander KaneRyan O'ReillyJason Pominville

Zemgus GirgensonsEvan RodriguesSam Reinhart

Scott WilsonJohan LarssonJordan Nolan

Marco ScandellaRasmus Ristolainen

Jake McCabeJustin Falk

Josh Gorges — Casey Nelson

Starting goalie: Robin Lehner

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Sabres vs. Rangers; Penguins vs. Kings]

New York Rangers

Rick NashMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich

Mats ZuccarelloJ.T. Miller — Vinni Lettieri

Jimmy VeseyDavid DesharnaisPaul Carey

Michael Grabner — Peter Holland — Jesper Fast

Ryan McDonaghNick Holden

Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk

Brendan SmithSteven Kampfer

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Nathan MacKinnon’s resurgence has Avalanche in surprising fight for playoff spot

Getty
1 Comment

Back in 2013-14 the Colorado Avalanche came out of nowhere to win 52 games and, somewhat shockingly, make the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It came just one year after they finished with the second-worst record in the league and with a first-year coach (Patrick Roy) behind the bench. As exciting as they were at times there was still a lot of evidence to suggest their success was a one-year mirage driven by incredible goaltending and some insane shooting luck, all of which was almost certain to regress the next season.

That, of course, was exactly what happened and over the next three years as the team steadily regressed before completely bottoming out again this past season with a 48-point season that was the worst single season (excluding the lockout season) performance of any team in the league since the introduction of the three-point game in 2005-06.

(Yes, they were even worse than the Buffalo Sabres teams that were tanking in an effort to get Connor McDavid.)

For as bleak as things looked in the standings, the one glimmer of hope the Avalanche always had was that they did have some young individual talent on the roster that could have (perhaps even should have) been the foundation of a really good team.

At the top of that list has always been Nathan MacKinnon, the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 and one of the driving forces behind Colorado’s surprising one-year turnaround in 2013-14.

But like the rest of the Avalanche players around him, MacKinnon also saw his performance regress in recent years. He still produced like a solid top-six forward, but wasn’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard the way you like, or even expect, a No. 1 pick and franchise cornerstone to light up the scoreboard.

That is starting to change this season.

Entering play on Thursday MacKinnon, who is still only 22 years old, is the fifth-leading scorer in the NHL and is on pace to to shatter pretty much all of his previous career highs.

He is also playing like a one-man human highlight reel on many nights, literally doing it all on his own at times.

Some examples:

Just half way through the season he is only five points away from matching his point total from the entire 2016-17 season.

There have been a couple of changes for him this season when it comes to his results.

The big one — and this is probably oversimplifying it a bit — the puck is actually going in the net for him.

After scoring 24 goals in his rookie season, MacKinnon came back the past three seasons and had one of the worst shooting percentages of any top-player in the league. Of the 145 forwards that recorded at least 400 shots on goal between 2014-15 and 2016-17, MacKinnon’s 7.4 shooting percentage during that stretch was better than only six players — Dustin Brown, Trevor Lewis, Jason Pominville, Carl Soderberg, Colton Sceviour and Patrick Sharp. Not really the group of players you would expect a player of his ability to be lumped in with in any context.

In 2016-17 alone his 6.4 mark was the fourth-worst among 135 forwards that recorded at least 150 shots on goal.

Because he still averaged more than three shots on goal per game during that stretch he was still able to, at times, put up some respectable goal-scoring numbers. Whatever the cause of that decline, whether it was just an unfortunate run of bad luck over several seasons, a change to his game or shot locations, or a combination of all of those factors, it put a significant dent in his production. So far this season that has changed in a big way as his shooting percentage has climbed back up over 10 percent and he has already topped his goal total from all of last season.

But it’s not just MacKinnon’s goal-scoring that has taken a step forward this season. His playmaking has also improved, and it’s not just in terms of the total number of assists.

So far this season 24 of MacKinnon’s 31 assists have been the primary assist on an Avalanche goal, which is more than 77 percent of his total assists. A year ago he only had 26 primary assists all season (out of 37 assists … 70 percent) and he only had 15 (out of 31 total assists … 48 percent) in 2015-16.

Combine all of that with a 51.8 Corsi percentage (second on the team) and you have a player that is driving the Colorado offense in every way possible. He’s pushing the pace, he’s scoring goals, and he’s the primary playmaker. He is doing everything you want a franchise player to do. Along with Mikko Rantenen and Gabriel Landeskog — two players he has seen significant time with this season, and especially lately — and rookie center Alexander Kerfoot and the Avalanche once again have an intriguing group of forwards they not only should be able to build around, but also have them in contention for a playoff spot this season.

Considering where the Avalanche were a season ago, along with the fact they did not really make many changes to the roster during the offseason, then traded Matt Duchene during the season, it is a pretty significant turnaround.

As of Thursday the Avalanche have won more games than they have lost this season and are three points back of the Anaheim Ducks for the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference with two games in hand. Between the Dallas Stars, Ducks, Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild and Avalanche there are five teams fighting for the two Wild Card spots in the west that are all currently on pace for between 90 and 93 points.

Whether or not the Avalanche have enough to get there remains to be seen, especially given their continued problems when it comes to keeping the puck out of the net. But they are still right in the thick of that playoff race and MacKinnon’s emergence as one of the top offensive players in the league and the franchise cornerstone they expected him to be when they made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 is a big reason why.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Winter Classic Edition

Getty Images

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The New York Rangers face a treacherous path following their win at the Winter Classic. (NBC Pro Hockey Talk)

• The Winter Classic has come a long way since 2008. (Toronto Star)

• Why the Winter Classic still holds its mystique. (USA Today)

• Sabres star Jack Eichel was right at home on outdoor ice at Winter Classic. (ESPN)

• Buffalo Sabres forward Jason Pominville details what it was like to play in the first Winter Classic and the 10th Winter Classic. (NHL.com)

• Art Dorrington, the first black ice hockey player to sign a professional contract, passed away on Friday at age 87. (Colour of Hockey)

• Q&A with former Los Angeles Kings head coach Darryl Sutter. (The Athletic)

• Jordan Greenway is set to become the first African-American to play for USA Hockey at an Olympic tournament. (The Sporting News)

• Trade Max Pacioretty? It could benefit both the Canadiens and the player. (Sportsnet)

• Team Canada not getting tied up in Swiss mind games ahead of quarterfinal. (Canadian Press)

• Team Canada goaltender Carter Hart could be the future in Philly. (Philly.com)

• North American Women’s League all-stars set to face United States Women’s National Team (Victory Press)

• Without NHL players in its stable, Team USA is looking across the pond for PyeongChang. (Reuters)

• Edmonton hockey fan is collection hockey cards of every Indigenous player. (CTV)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: 2018 Winter Classic – Rangers vs. Sabres

Getty
1 Comment

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Rangers

Rick Nash/Mika Zibanejad/Mats Zuccarello

Michael Grabner/Kevin Hayes/J.T. Miller

Pavel Buchnevich/David Desharnais/Jimmy Vesey

Paul Carey/Boo Nieves/Vinni Lettieri

Ryan McDonagh/Nick Holden

Brendan Smith/Kevin Shattenkirk

Marc Staal/Brady Skjei

Startling goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Rangers, Sabres take advantage of Winter Classic distraction

Sabres:

Zemgus Girgensons/Jack Eichel/Sam Reinhart

Evander Kane/Ryan O'Reilly/Kyle Okposo

Benoit Pouliot/Evan Rodrigues/Jason Pominville

Johan Larsson/Jacob Josefson/Jordan Nolan

Marco Scandella/Rasmus Ristolainen

Jake McCabe/Zach Bogosian

Josh Gorges/Nathan Beaulieu

Startling goalie: Robin Lehner

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Rangers, Sabres take advantage of Winter Classic distraction

2 Comments

NEW YORK – Hockey players are creatures of habit. They need to be. When you’re practicing and playing games from mid-September until at least April it’s easy to settle into daily routines as that becomes your normal life.

But certain points of the season can drag and along the journey of an 82-game schedule comes points of boredom. Rink, bus, game, hotel, plane and repeat. Like anything, sometimes a season needs a jolt of electricity to bring some excitement to it.

Enter the Winter Classic.

The Buffalo Sabres and the New York Rangers have known this date was coming since the spring. It’s a nationally televised game on a big stage in New York over New Year’s. The all-access cameras have been following them around for a few weeks now and with the holidays just passing, it’s been a great time to spend with family.

On Sunday, both teams got to skate on the ice at Citi Field — first with their teammates during practice and then for an hour afterward with friends and family.

“We’ve been talking about this for the past few weeks and past few months. Families are in now so it’s almost like a little family trip,” said Sabres forward Jordan Nolan. “We were together [Saturday], we had a team meal. [Sunday night] there’s a team meal and guys are spending New Year’s together, guys are getting the families together. When you do an event like this it definitely brings a team a little bit closer. It’s a little bit special experience for everyone during the season, so it’s definitely needed for an 82-game schedule.”

“It’s a lot different,” added Evander Kane. “You kind of forget about the rest of the year.”

While there’s plenty of potential distractions for both teams leading up to the New Year’s Day game, they’re not all necessarily negative.

“You’re changing the normal routine here. I think as an organization, as coaches, that’s one thing that we try and do in an 82-game schedule at any given point is try to change a little bit, even though players are creatures of habit,” said Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault. “With this [Monday], everybody’s got tons of people that are going to watch, that are going to be here, they’re going to want to be at their best. Both teams are going to work real hard and it’s going to be a fine event.”

Both Rangers and Sabres players said on Sunday that while there’s plenty of fun to be had during an outdoor game experience, game day is a different story. They’ll wake up Monday morning and prepare like normal. All the excitement surrounding such an event goes away and it’s a matter of focusing on the two points at hand — points that mean different things to both teams at this point in the season.

For the Rangers, it’s two points toward clinching another playoff berth. For the Sabres, it’s two points that could get them moving in the right direction — a direction they’re feeling they’ve finally started to move toward.

“We’ve got to try and find positives and we have been playing well of late,” Kane said. “A game like this, a marquis game of the year, it’s something that we’re all looking forward to and now that it’s finally here we want to put ourselves in a position to win this game and get off on the right foot for the new year.”

More 2018 Winter Classic coverage:
Sabres’ Jason Pominville ready for third outdoor game experience
Mike Emrick on calling the first Winter Classic, his favorite outdoor game venues (PHT Q&A)
Sabres hoping to use Winter Classic to jump-start positive second half
Rangers, Sabres prepared for cold, windy Winter Classic conditions
Kevin Shattenkirk looking to be more than ‘work in progress’ with Rangers
Old friends Lehner, Lundqvist ready to face off at Winter Classic

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.