Jason Brough

With next four games at home, streaking Avs have great chance to ‘keep climbing’

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The Colorado Avalanche looked all but done at the start of the month.

Six wins later and there’s still plenty of ground to be made up; they’ve only turned a seven-point playoff deficit into a five-point deficit.

But it’s progress all the same.

“We’re in [the playoff race] right now,” star forward Matt Duchene told NHL.com ahead of tonight’s home game versus the Islanders. “We’re not too far out and that gives us more motivation to keep climbing.”

The Avs are back in Denver after sweeping a tough three-game road trip through Nashville, St. Louis and Chicago. All three wins came in regulation — that’s important, considering one of those three Central Division foes may be the one the Avs have to pass in order to get into the postseason.

The Avs will also host the Oilers, Leafs and Coyotes on their four-game home stand. Considering the opposition, anything less than three wins would likely be considered a disappointment.

Related: For streaking Avs, Semyon Varlamov has ‘been our best player, no doubt’

Goalie nods: Al Montoya has been excellent for Panthers

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 8: Goaltender Al Montoya #35 of the Florida Panthers defends the net against the Calgary Flames at the BB&T Center on November 8, 2014 in Sunrise, Florida. The Flames defeated the Panthers 6-4. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
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Earlier in the week, we identified five backup goalies that weren’t getting it done for their teams.

Al Montoya was definitely not a candidate for that list. The 30-year-old has been excellent when called upon to give Roberto Luongo a night off.

Montoya will get his eighth start of the season tonight in New Jersey. He’s 4-1-1 with a .929 save percentage. In his last outing, a week ago against Washington, he nearly shut out the Capitals in a 4-1 victory.

The Panthers enter tonight’s game two points back of the last wild-card spot in the East — a spot that’s held by none other than the Devils.

Cory Schneider will be in goal for New Jersey. (He’s been pretty good, too.)

Elsewhere…

John Gibson for the desperate Ducks in Buffalo. Chad Johnson for the Sabres.

Jacob Markstrom made the aforementioned list. He’ll start tonight for the reeling Canucks in Philadelphia. Steve Mason for the Flyers.

Martin Jones for the Sharks in Toronto. Garret Sparks for the Leafs, after Jonathan Bernier remained winless Tuesday.

Jonathan Quick expected for the Kings in Montreal. Mike Condon for the Habs.

Antti Raanta has been a good backup again this season. He’ll start for the Rangers tonight in Minnesota. Devan Dubnyk returns from injury for the Wild. He hasn’t played since getting hurt Dec. 5.

Pekka Rinne expected for the Predators in St. Louis. Jake Allen for the Blues.

Cam Talbot for the Oilers in Chicago. Corey Crawford for the Blackhawks.

Karri Ramo for the Flames in Dallas. Kari Lehtonen for the Stars.

Thomas Greiss, another backup enjoying a fine season, for the Islanders in Colorado. Red-hot Semyon Varlamov for the Avs.

— Curtis McElhinney (he made the list) for the Blue Jackets in Arizona. Anders Lindback (he made it, too) for the Coyotes.

Two groups, each bidding to build a new NHL arena in Ottawa

Last year, the National Capital Commission called for proposals to redevelop a bunch of government-owned land in central Ottawa called LeBreton Flats.

Earlier this week, the NCC announced that just two proposals had been submitted, after four groups had previously been shortlisted.

One of the two proposals came from the Ottawa Senators, and it included an NHL arena.

The other came from an entity called DCDLS Group….and it included an NHL arena.

While that may have been good news for the Sens — not to mention Ottawa hockey fans who don’t care for the drive to suburban Kanata, where the Sens call Canadian Tire Centre home — some had hoped for a few more options to choose from.

“We asked the (private) sector to come back and give us their best to create vision for the last big piece of public land in downtown Ottawa, the capital of Canada. And you get to choose between two hockey arenas. It’s hugely disappointing,” said Ottawa city councilor Catherine McKenney.

The NCC, a crown corporation, said on its website that it “expects to announce the successful proponent in early 2017.” However, according to the Ottawa Sun, “the main obstacle might be convincing the NCC that an arena built for wealthy owners and multimillion-dollar hockey players is the appropriate ‘public anchor use’ for government land.”

The Ottawa Citizen has more analysis here.

Just another arena story to keep an eye on.

Last in the Pacific, Ducks begin road trip with ‘sense of urgency’

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It’s been almost two weeks since the Anaheim Ducks last earned a point in the standings.

That’s not entirely their fault. They’ve only played once since beating Pittsburgh on Dec. 6.

But they did blow that one opportunity, dropping a 5-1 decision at home to Carolina on Dec. 11.

Tonight in Buffalo, they kick off a four-game road trip, with further stops in Newark, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, followed by the Christmas break.

“When you don’t get any points in (10) days, a lot of teams pass you and go by you,” coach Bruce Boudreau told the O.C. Register. “So the sense of urgency to get points is a little bit more. I think everybody knows the importance of this week.”

Picked by many to win the Stanley Cup, the Ducks (11-13-5) will begin their trip in last place in the worst division in the league, three points back of four teams.

On the bright side, they’re only four points out of second in said Pacific Division, with at least a game in hand on every team they’re chasing.

Looking ahead, the Ducks play seven of their next eight on the road, then get an eight-game home stand from Jan. 3-20. While it’s possible they could tread water during that stretch and still stay in the playoff race, this is not a roster that was built to tread water. Considering expectations, GM Bob Murray probably won’t stay patient forever.

“The ball’s in our court,” said forward Chris Stewart. “It’s just up to us.”

Related: Ryan Getzlaf is hearing the criticism

Less ‘running around’ has been key for Bruins

Dennis Seidenberg, Patric Hornqvist, \b40
AP
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The Boston Bruins’ goals-against average has been doing a good impression of the Canadian dollar.

It’s been plummeting.

Last night’s shutout of the Penguins brought it down to 2.63. Still not among the NHL’s best — the official rank is 18th — but for Tuukka Rask, the improvement in front of him has been obvious.

“When we play our system it’s very helpful for a goalie,” Rask told reporters. “It’s so much more coordinated in our own zone now. Guys are not running around.”

Rask has also been better himself, according to coach Claude Julien.

“He’s been the goaltender we all know he can be,” said Julien. “That’s how we felt about him at the beginning (of the season) when he struggled.”

Rask has allowed just two goals in his last four starts. His save percentage has climbed to .917, creeping above the league average .916.

Granted, as a team, the Bruins still aren’t dominating games the way they did when they were considered among the NHL’s elite. They gave up 34 shots to the Penguins last night. They spent much of the game in their own end, especially after taking a 2-0 lead.

That being said, not all shots are created equal, and Rask has liked how the Bruins have been keeping their opponents mostly to the outside.

“They’re going to get shots,” he said. “It’s just a matter of what kind of shots they’re going to get.”

The Bruins’ next game is Friday in Pittsburgh.