Semyon Varlamov is disappointing

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Semyon Varlamov is finding out that playing for the Avalanche is a lot different than playing for the Capitals. Of course, part of his job is to help make the Avalanche a much better team by stopping more pucks.

After losing in disappointing fashion to the lowly Edmonton Oilers last night, The Denver Post’s Adrian Dater decided that Varlamov’s disappointing performance very well might make him the No. 2 goalie in Colorado.

Varlamov had a chance to reclaim the No. 1 job tonight, but he blew it, plain and simple. I would say it’s less than 50-50 he’ll get another real chance the rest of the season now, unless J.S. Giguere gets hurt. That’s how big this game was for him tonight, I believe. This was a “prove it to me you can still be the guy for us” game, and he failed. The Oilers had about five good scoring chances in this game, and they scored on three of them. Meanwhile, the Avs made Devan Dubynk look like Glenn Hall again.

Ouch.

In case you forgot, the Avalanche gave up a first-round pick in 2012 and a second-round pick in 2012 or 2013 to Washington to get Varlamov. Meanwhile, Varlamov’s save percentage is below .900 and his goals against average is right at 3.00.

Double ouch.

Lightning clinch Presidents’ Trophy for first time in franchise history

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No was ever going to catch the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was just the mathematics that needed to be satisfied before they could be handed their first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history.

And with nine games remaining — a good three weeks — left in the regular season, the Lightning became just the second team since the trophy began being awarded in 1985-86 to do it as quickly as they did in a 4-1 win against the Arizona Coyotes on Monday. The 73 games it took the Lightning has only been bested by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, who clinched the trophy in 71.

It should be noted that no team has won the Presidents’ Trophy and gone on to win the Stanley Cup since the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks. Tampa’s biggest task still lays ahead of them as they look to exorcise their playoff demons

There are still 18 points up for grabs, too, meaning that the Lightning, who are on 116 points after winning their fifth straight on Monday, can theoretically get to 134, which would set a new NHL record for most in a season (the Montreal Canadiens posted 132 in 1976-77). And before we write that off, realize that this Lightning team is something special and winning nine straight isn’t out of the realm of possibility. They could go 8-0-1 and still end with 133 points.

Furthermore, they’re six wins back of those 1995-96 Red Wings for most wins in a season with 62.

Tampa has matched or set all sorts of records this season, and their players have, too.

A week after Vincent Lecavalier’s points record was taken from him by Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos notched goal No. 384 in Monday’s win to pass Lecavalier for most in Lightning history.


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

Predators’ Watson reinstated after indefinite suspension

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Austin Watson has been reinstated by the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, a joint statement from both the league and the players’ union said on Monday.

Watson entered the program on Jan. 29 when the NHL announced that he would be suspended indefinitely until cleared for on-ice competition by the program’s administrators.

Last September, Watson was suspended 27 games for unacceptable off-ice conduct after he pleaded no contest to domestic assault charges stemming from an incident at a gas station in Franklin, Tenn.

That suspension was later reduced to 18 games upon and appeal by the NHLPA and Watson returned to the lineup on Nov. 15. He’d go on to play 34 games before entering Stage 2 of the SABH for “treatment related exclusively to his ongoing issues with alcohol abuse.

Jenn Guardino, the girlfriend of Watson, later came out and said that the 27-year-old forward had not abused her.

“Consistent with the recommendations of the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, Nashville Predators forward Austin Watson has been returned to available status and has entered the follow-up care phase of the program,” a statement from the Predators said on Monday. “Because of the personal nature and the steps outlined in the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, and our extensive focus on Austin and his family’s well-being, there will be no further comment on this matter.”

The Predators sit second in the Central Division, one point behind the Winnipeg Jets with nine games remaining in the regular season.


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

Stone’s arrival has given Golden Knights new top scoring line

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It has taken George McPhee and the Vegas Golden Knights front office less than two years to assemble a roster that looks like it is going to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for the foreseeable future.

In year one they rode some stunning play from their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in what was one of the most improbable seasons (individually and on a team level) in league history.

For as good as that trio was, it was also inevitable that their production was going to regress significantly this season (and it has). They are still very good, but their regression, combined with the free agency departures of James Neal and David Perron, meant that the Golden Knights were going to have to make up for that drop in production elsewhere on the roster.

Enter their three big acquisitions from the past year of Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty, and recent trade deadline addition Mark Stone.

Together that trio has formed what is supposed to be the Golden Knights’ second scoring line, but they have been so dominant as a group that we should probably be starting to look at them as their new top line.

In the nine games since the trade deadline the Golden Knights have put together an 8-1-0 record, with their only loss coming against the Calgary Flames in the second half of a back-to-back.

During that stretch the trio of Pacioretty, Stastny, and Stone has spent more than 116 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together as a line and been the biggest driving force behind their late season surge. In those 5-on-5 minutes they have outscored teams by a 6-3 margin, are controlling more than 65 percent of the total shot attempts and scoring chances that take place when they are on the ice, and more than 75 percent of the high-danger chances.

You would be hard pressed to find a better trio anywhere in the league since the end of February when taking their all around play into account.

From the moment they acquired Stastny and Pacioretty in the offseason it was expected they would be the foundation of a newly formed second line, and one that might have been even better than the one they put on the ice a year ago. But injuries to both Pacioretty and Stastny at various times put a dent in those plans, as well as the fact they were missing a stable third presence on their wing.

That is where Stone comes in.

Spending his entire career in Ottawa on what has mostly been a dysfunctional, mess of a team has made Stone one of the league’s most overlooked and underappreciated top-line scoring wingers. But he is a steady 60-point, possession driving player that has always made everyone around him better. That is an incredibly valuable asset in the NHL and is not the type of player that is always readily available.

When you have a chance to acquire one, you should be willing to jump at it. The Golden Knights did.

He is not only in the middle of what is a career year, but he has proven to be an ideal fit alongside Stastny and Pacioretty.

Just look at how their ability to drive possession and scoring chances has spiked since Stone’s arrival.

They are averaging more goals per 60 minutes (0.4 goals to be exact), allowing fewer goals per 60 minutes (2.96 down to 1.55), and have seen a drastic increase in their shot attempts, scoring chance, and high-danger scoring chance numbers.

McPhee paid a pretty substantial price to put this trio together, giving up two of the team’s top prospects (Nick Suzuki in the Pacioretty trade; Erik Brannstrom in the Stone trade) and several draft picks (not including the three draft picks he sent to Detroit to acquire Tomas Tatar, who was also sent to Montreal in the Pacioretty trade) and committed a significant amount of salary cap space to them. Immediately after acquiring Pacioretty he signed him to a four-year, $28 million contract extension, and followed a similar path with Stone by signing him to an eight-year, $76 million contract. Stastny is playing on a three-year, $19.5 million contract.

Given their ages and the long-term salary commitments there is a degree of risk there in future seasons because at some point all of them are going to decline before the end of their contracts. But as shocking as it still is to say, the Golden Knights’ championship window is pretty much wide open at this point, and whenever that is the case you owe it to yourself and your fans to go for it.

The Golden Knights did that by acquiring three of three of the most prominent scoring forwards that were available over the past eight months and assembled them into a new top line that seems to be sending their overall play in the right direction as the playoffs get close.

With the top line of Marchessault, Karlsson, and Smith still in place, and Alex Tuch helping to carry the third line, there is reason to believe that this Golden Knights team might be even better than the one we saw in year one. That does not guarantee them anything come playoff time because their likely playoff path is going to be significantly tougher this season (and their goaltending has not been quite as consistent as it was a year ago), but they have to like their chances.

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.

Will streaky Calgary stay hot or flame out in playoffs?

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The Calgary Flames know they’re in the playoffs. Now comes the hard part.

Despite being idle on Sunday, the Flames became the first Western Conference team to clinch a postseason berth due to the New York Islanders’ win over the Minnesota Wild. But the Flames know better than most teams that nothing is guaranteed in the playoffs. Since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2004, Calgary has won just one postseason series. A Canadian team has not won the Cup since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. The Flames won their only championship 30 years ago. Will this finally be the year that the C of Red celebrates into the summer?

Even the Flames would have to admit they’ve been inconsistent over the last month. After winning seven straight games from February 16 to 27, Calgary dropped their next four in regulation, followed by another three-game winning streak with a jaw dropping 20 total goals during that three-game stretch. Obviously, no team can afford a prolonged lull in the playoffs.

Calgary’s chances to make a run deep into spring begin between the pipes, as both David Rittich and Mike Smith have been up and down this year. While Rittich is enjoying a career season (his third in the NHL) with 25 wins, he owns just a .910 save percentage, which ranks tied for 24th in the NHL among qualified goaltenders (21 or more games played). The veteran Smith has just an .896 save percentage on the year and has dropped three consecutive starts in March. While he once brought the Phoenix Coyotes to the Western Conference Final in 2012, Smith has not been back to the postseason since. The Flames boast the fourth best offense in the NHL this season (3.56 goals per game), but when scoring inevitably dries up in the playoffs, a reliable netminder is vital in the march toward the Cup.

Calgary’s top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm is one of the best trios in the league. Gaudreau is a Hart Trophy candidate this season with a career-best 91 points, Monahan has already secured his third career 30-goal season and Lindholm has been a rousing success story in Calgary, blowing past any of his previous five seasons with Carolina. It’s also easy to forget just how good Monahan was the last time the Flames were in the playoffs. Though Calgary was quickly swept in four games by the Anaheim Ducks in 2017, Monahan scored a power play goal in all four games. He is one of eight players in League history to tally a power play goal in four consecutive postseason games.

Aside from the top line, Calgary does have depth with the likes of Matthew Tkachuk (73 points), Norris Trophy-hopeful Mark Giordano (67 points) and Mikael Backlund (44 points). They could also get a boost if James Neal returns to form. Neal is getting closer to returning from a lower body injury that has kept him out over a month. The 31-year-old signed a 5-year, $28.75 million deal this off-season, but has been a disappointment with just 15 points in 55 games. Still, Neal has shown the ability to be a big-time player throughout his career and has loads of experience, having played in the postseason each of the last eight years.

Several other statistics from this season bode well for the Flames entering the playoffs. They have a whopping plus-49 goal differential in the third period and lead the NHL with 105 goals in the third period. They are also 21-14-2 on the road and need just two road wins to set a single-season franchise record.

Despite their success away from Alberta, clinching home ice advantage would be huge for Calgary’s chances. There is little doubt that the Scotiabank Saddledome will be rocking come playoff time, but even more importantly, winning the Pacific Division would ensure that the Flames avoid playing the reigning Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights in the First Round. Giordano, however, took the diplomatic approach, saying the opponent won’t matter.

“Well…the team that gets in as the wildcard is going to be playing really well and playing really hard,” Giordano told the Calgary Sun. “I’ve never been a fan of trying to pick and choose who you want to playoffs because the league’s so tight. The team that’s usually in the wildcard is feeling good and playing well. And if you want to go all the way, you’re going to have to go through a lot of great teams.”

To this point, Calgary has proven to be great in the regular season. But they’ll need to find more consistency to end their – and Canada’s – Stanley Cup drought.