J.T. Compher scores twice as Avalanche down Wild 5-1

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The Colorado Avalanche kept their playoff train chugging along nicely on Tuesday.

Sitting in the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference heading into the game, the Avalanche received some help from the Montreal Canadiens via a 4-2 win over the Dallas Stars, and kept up their end of the bargain with a 5-1 win away to the Minnesota Wild to leapfrog the Stars into the first wildcard spot — three points behind the Wild for third place in the Central Division.

The Avs are a healthy 5-0-3 in their past eight games.

While Nathan MacKinnon has been doing much of the heavy lifting to position himself favorably in the Hart Trophy conversation, it was J.T. Compher who took a bit of that load off on Tuesday.

Compher got the ball rolling for the Avalanche, scoring on a nice wrist shot that beat Dubnyk high in the first period.

Colorado’s lead would last well into the second period before Mikko Koivu converted on a odd-man rush to bring the Wild level.

Minnesota — who lost 7-1 the last time these two teams met — came into the game 3-1-0 in their past four, and with the Winnipeg Jets falling 3-1 to the Nashville Predators earlier in the night, the Wild had a chance to close the gap on second place in the division to five points.

But 59 seconds after Koivu notched his 13th, Nikita Zadorov crushed a one-timer from the slot past Dubnyk to restore the 2-1 lead.

Nathan MacKinnon entered the game on an eight-game heater and pushed that number to nine games 11 seconds into the third period to double Colorado’s advantage.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 17 points during his streak and 18 goals and 42 points in his past 25 games.

Compher’s second of the night came in the second half of the third period, a goal that was challenged for goaltender interference but upheld after the review.


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: Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild

Associated Press

[WATCH LIVE – 8:30 p.m. ET]

PROJECTED LINEUPS

Wild

Jason ZuckerEric StaalMikael Granlund

Zach PariseMikko KoivuCharlie Coyle

Nino NiederreiterJoel Eriksson EkTyler Ennis

Daniel WinnikMatt CullenMarcus Foligno

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon

Jonas BrodinMatt Dumba

Nick SeelerNate Prosser

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

[NHL on NBCSN: Avalanche, Wild meet with important points on the line]

Avalanche

Gabriel LandeskogNathan MacKinnonMikko Rantanen

Sven AndrighettoTyson JostJ.T. Compher

Matt NietoCarl SoderbergBlake Comeau

Alexander KerfootDominic ToninatoGabriel Bourque

Nikita ZadorovTyson Barrie

Patrik NemethSamuel Girard

Duncan SiemensDavid Warsofsky

Starting goalie: Semyon Varlamov

NHL on NBCSN: Avalanche, Wild meet with important points on the line

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Tuesday as the Minnesota Wild take on the Colorado Avalanche at 8:30 p.m. ET. To watch the game online, click here.

After a week of playing against teams out of the Western Conference playoff picture, the Wild will see six of their next seven games against teams currently sitting in postseason spots. It begins tonight against the Avalanche, who romped to a 7-1 win when these teams met 11 days ago. Hart Trophy candidate Nathan MacKinnon had himself a night with two goals and five points.

The Wild are on 85 points and reside in the third spot in the Central Division, but the Dallas Stars (82 points) and Avs (80) are right on their tail. Now is not a time for a March swoon.

“We know every point matters (over the course of the season),” said Mikko Koivu via the Pioneer Press. “That said, it’s a different feeling playing a game in March. … It’s a good feeling to come to the rink. It’s all business this time of the season.”

[WATCH LIVE – 8:30 p.m. ET]

With wins over Minnesota by scores of 7-2 and 7-1 this season, the Avs might feel a bit confident heading into tonight’s game with big playoff race implications. Semyon Varlamov will likely get the start in goal as he searches for his first win since that rout on March 2. His last three starts have not gone well as he’s allowed 11 goals in three overtime losses.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

With Jonathan Bernier sidelined after taking a puck to the head following his return on Saturday, the Avs need Varlamov to get his game right with a month to go in the regular season. Just as the Wild have teams nipping at their heels, Colorado is clinging to the final wild card spot with Anaheim, St. Louis and Calgary all within striking distance.

“(Varlamov) has been great,” Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar said via the Denver Post. “He had some time off when he re-tweaked his groin there midseason (with) three weeks or so off. He’s been getting lots of rest on practice days, so he looks good and feels good. Not a problem there for him carrying the load right now.”

————

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.

Nathan MacKinnon set for return after eight-game layoff

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Nathan MacKinnon declared himself fit on Saturday.

And with that self-diagnosis (and probably a lot of input from team doctors), the Colorado Avalanche superstar will return to the lineup on Sunday when the Edmonton Oilers come to town.

MacKinnon has missed eight games with an upper-body injury, going down at a time when the Avalanche were thriving off his impressive play.

The former No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft left second in NHL scoring with 61 points, although he’s fallen a bit behind now, sitting in 16th spot.

More importantly, MacKinnon’s play had him in the conversation for the Hart Trophy, and despite missing eight games, could likely put himself right back there if he can lead the Avs to a playoff spot.

Colorado was 4-4-0 without MacKinnon, including an ugly 6-1 defeat away to the Winnipeg Jets on Friday.

“A hundred percent, I feel good,” MacKinnon told NHL.com’s Rick Sadowski on Saturday. “My trainers did a great job getting me ready, getting me healthy quickly, so I’m good.”

The Avs get their All-Star back at a time they need him most. Colorado sits three points back of the Minnesota Wild for the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference with 25 games to play.

“You get your best player back, it’s positive, no question” Colorado coach Jared Bednar told Sadowski. “He drives our offense in a lot of ways, 5-on-5, power play. We need him back, but we can’t just rely on Nate. It’s not just going to magically turn around here in our favor just because he’s back in our lineup.”

The Avs also found out that Alexander Kerfoot is a quality young center within their organization.

“He’s been pretty good,” Bednar said from Winnipeg on Friday. “It’s a big hole to fill, a big job playing in that No. 1 spot. For a young guy coming in an elevating his game as the year goes on, I think he’s been pretty good. He’s learning on the go a little bit. He’s faced some real tough matchups, he’s still finding a way to chip in a little bit offensively and, for the most part, done a nice job defensively as well.

“We’re pretty happy with what he’s done.”

On Friday, before his team’s walloping, Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog told NHL.com’s Tim Campbell that he felt his team had what it takes to make the playoffs, without the need to bring in any more talent at the trade deadline.

“I think for us, first and foremost, we’re focused on winning hockey games,” Landeskog said. “The trade deadline is what it is. We’re a team that’s pushing to get in and we’re just on the outside looking in right now and we’re focused on winning games. I believe with the team we have, we’re good enough to make the playoffs. We haven’t been favored by too many people to make the playoffs, but as long as the guys in here believe, I think we can do it.”

Whether they need help or not is certainly debatable, but Landeskog also said he believes any moves that general manager Joe Sakic would make would be minor. The thrashing they received at the hands of the Jets on Friday would suggest they need to do more than just stand pat.

But the injection of MacKinnon could act as a quasi-acquisition in its own right.

The Avs have a lot to do if they’re going to emerge out of the toughest division in the NHL. Getting MacKinnon back for the stretch drive can only help.

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

Culture Change: How an attitude adjustment has slowly begun to turn the Colorado Avalanche around

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WINNIPEG — Gabriel Landeskog knew. 

A change in the cultural fabric in Colorado is something the Avalanche had talked about for a couple seasons, and something that hadn’t happened.

The warning signs for the 25-year-old captain of the Avs were abundant, including a treasure trove of terrible that attached itself to a historically brutal season in 2016-17.

Like the natural phenomena they’re named after, those problems finally broke free early last season for the Avs. Unable to be controlled, they tore down the Colorado Avalanche, only coming to a halt at the end of the season at rock bottom. 

“You take it pretty personal,” Landeskog said on Saturday in Winnipeg, hours before his team would lose 3-0 to the Winnipeg Jets, a fourth loss in their past five games since winning 10 straight.

It was a far cry from the days of Forsberg, Sakic and Roy, when the team was dominating the Western Conference, not wallowing as the team others trampled over at will.

That winning culture was gone, replaced with mediocrity in recent years and then utter failure after last season.

Nothing looked quite like last year.  

Colorado’s 48 points was a franchise worst. They lost 56 games. They were last or close to last in numerous statistical categories.

“You’re not supposed to take it home with you, but I would,” Landeskog said. “This is our job, this is what we do. It’s something that is hard to put behind you, going home and trying not to think about the fact that you just lost six in a row.”

The Avs needed a core leadership group to emerge to start those changes. Landeskog said himself, Tyson Barrie, Erik Johnson, Nathan MacKinnon and Blake Comeau came together to figure out how to begin to mend their ailing team. 

“It was really embarrassing for us,” Barrie said of the 2016-17 campaign. 

Barrie, along with the now-departed Matt Duchene, led the team with a minus-34. It’s a flawed statistic, sure, but one indicative one what was happening on the ice. Only four players that played some sort of role for the Avalanche were zero or better in that category. 

“It was a bad season and we knew we didn’t want to be back there. It was a long summer for us,” Barrie said.

With a core trying to steer this ship and a coaching staff in the same boat, Barrie said training camp prior to this season was the hardest and toughest he’s taken part in.

“Physical, testing, everything like that,” he said.

Landeskog said the leadership group assembled wasn’t a dictatorship, noting that every team has its core and it was a potential solution to the massive problem. 

“It’s easier said than done,” Landeskog said of changing the team’s attitude. “There were a lot of Xs and Os. We had a young team that maybe didn’t have to be accountable where they came from before. Maybe there was a different attitude. We had to establish one attitude here, and it started with the veteran guys.” 

Both Landeskog and Barrie agreed that there wasn’t a particular switch that was flipped this season. Hard work from training camp didn’t immediately translate as the Avs flirted with .500 in October.

But Landeskog pointed to the trip they took to Sweden as a possible turning point.

The Avs lost both games to the Ottawa Senators — close affairs — and were dealing with the departure of Matt Duchene, who had been traded days before they embarked to Landeskog’s homeland.

“You talk about team building and stuff like that. Some people might not believe in it, but I’m a strong believer in it,” Landeskog said. “That trip brought us a lot closer.”

The on-ice product started to follow suit. The work they had put in since the beginning of the season began to pay off and the Avs rattled off 10 straight wins to climb back into the playoff picture.

“We’re a different team this year,” Barrie said. “I think having some fresh, new faces in here, some guys who were really excited to be in the NHL and be a part of a team like the Avalanche, gave us some energy.”

MacKinnon has put himself in the Hart Trophy conversation with what many believe is his breakout season. A 2-to-4 week suspected shoulder injury has derailed that a little bit, but MacKinnon’s stellar play leading by example has helped the Avs to where they are, just outside the playoff line — something unimaginable at this point last season.

Mikko Rantanen has taken a step forward in his sophomore year and rookie Alexander Kerfoot has been a godsend down the middle, especially now that he’s tasked to help stem the bleeding in MacKinnon’s absence.

“There’s been a lot of turnover,” Barrie said. “You look at guys like (MacKinnon) taking the next step. And we’ve had guys just elevate their play and these young guys come in (who are) so excited to play. They’ve been a big part of our team… it’s really exciting for the future.”

It’s a start, Landeskog said.

“We’re growing together.”


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