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The challenge for Yeo? Make better use of Blues’ speed

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Let’s face it, no matter what Mike Yeo does as head coach of the St. Louis Blues, no matter what changes he makes after today’s firing of Ken Hitchcock, no matter how well he motivates his players, the team isn’t going anywhere without better goaltending.

More than halfway through the season, Jake Allen and Carter Hutton both have save percentages below .900. Those two are the prime reason the Blues are barely clinging to a playoff spot. They are the epitome of the Harry Neale quote: “Goaltending is 75 percent of your hockey team. Unless you don’t have it, then it’s 100 percent.”

Now, you could certainly blame the general manager, Doug Armstrong, for not finding Allen a suitable backup after Brian Elliott was traded to Calgary. Hutton, 31, has never put up particularly good NHL numbers. He was decent last season in Nashville, but in a very limited role behind Pekka Rinne.

Allen is the starter, though, and he has to be better, plain and simple. That’s why the Blues also fired goalie coach Jim Corsi today, replacing him with Martin Brodeur and Ty Conklin. The hope is that Brodeur and Conklin can connect with Allen and somehow help him rediscover his form.

At the same time, Yeo will try to get the Blues to play faster and more aggressively — first, in their own end, and then on the attack.

“We want to be a team that’s structured,” Yeo said today, “but we want to defend quickly, we want to defend aggressively, and with that, I think what we’ll see is us having the ability to showcase our speed and our ability to get to the offensive zone and on the attack a bit quicker.”

If we can forget the goaltending for a moment, let’s focus on the phrase “showcase our speed.” Because the past few years, the Blues have been more big and heavy than fast. That was their identity. They were hard to play against. When they hit you, it hurt.

And then David Backes and Troy Brouwer left.

Looking back, there’s no doubt that the departures of those two veteran forwards changed the Blues’ identity.

Just ask Armstrong.

“I think what we’ve seen in the NHL this season is that it’s still a man’s league, and you still have to get to the hard areas to score,” he told the Post-Dispatch a couple of weeks ago. “But I think you have to play to how your roster is built. You don’t replace a Backes and a Brouwer with another Backes and Brouwer at a younger age, or if you do, we didn’t have those guys in our group.

“I don’t think you can ask Robby Fabbri to play the way David Backes did. I just think it’s unrealistic. So our coaches’ responsibility is to use their expertise to find different ways to play. We have to find different ways to get the same results. I think you need a good balance and we’re trying to find that balance.”

That responsibility now falls to Yeo. Perhaps he’ll be a better fit with the current roster than Hitchcock, who had success with the big-and-heavy Blues but didn’t get the same results with a speedier, more skilled group.

Again, though, the Blues first and foremost need better goaltending. They cannot be losing games, 7-3, when they only surrender 18 shots, which is exactly what they did a couple of weeks ago to Washington.

Yeo made clear today that Allen is the Blues’ goalie of the present, and also the future.

So expect Allen to get the start tomorrow against the high-scoring visitors from Toronto.

It won’t get any easier after that. On Saturday, the Blues host the Pittsburgh Penguins, and then it’s on the road for five games.

Related: Armstrong rips into Blues after firing his ‘best friend’

Rantanen’s goals help Avalanche defeat Flyers, extend point streak

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Mikko Rantanen scored twice and the Colorado Avalanche extended their point streak to eight games with a 3-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Matt Calvert also scored, and Pavel Francouz made 32 saves in Colorado’s seventh win over the past eight games.

Claude Giroux scored the lone Flyers goal late in the third period and Carter Hart made 25 saves, but the Flyers fell in regulation for only the second time in the previous 10 outings (7-2-1).

Francouz provides boost between the pipes

With Avalanche starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer sidelined with a lower-body injury, Francouz made his fourth straight appearance and collected his eighth win of the season with a strong performance against the Flyers.

After a rocky showing against the Flames earlier this week which resulted in a 5-4 overtime loss, Francouz bounced back and was a steadying force in the crease. Claude Giroux ended Francouz’s shutout bid late in the third period, but the Czech goalie held off a late push from Philadelphia.

After a second-round defeat in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Avalanche have eyes on home-ice advantage in the 2020 postseason. If Francouz can provide consistent goaltending when called upon, they certainly have the star power up front to be a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.

Kadri acquisition paying early dividends

Colorado general manager Joe Sakic acquired Nazem Kadri this past summer to help the Avalanche become a deeper team with improved secondary scoring. With 21 points in 28 games this season, Kadri has added another element to Colorado’s dynamic offensive attack.

Early in the third period Wednesday, Kadri patiently waited behind the Flyers’ net until Rantanen skated into position to convert a one-timer to give Colorado a three-goal third-period lead.

The Avalanche’s top line is one of the most lethal trios in the NHL, but Colorado is that much more dangerous if Kadri continues to provide an extra boost.

Looking ahead for Flyers

The Flyers began a three-game road trip against Central Division opponents with a loss against the Avalanche, but cannot let one game ruin the momentum they have generated with strong play in recent weeks. The Flyers will travel to Minnesota and Winnipeg over the weekend and need to continue to secure points to keep pace in the Metropolitan Division.

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

Oshie, Carlson lift Capitals over Bruins in mid-season test

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The 82-game regular season is a marathon for NHL teams, but at various points of the season you want to measure yourself up against a top team in your conference.

On Wednesday Night Hockey, the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals defeated the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins 3-2 at Capital One Arena.

John Carlson scored the go-ahead goal 4:42 into the third period to help propel the Capitals. T.J. Oshie scored twice and Braden Holtby made 30 saves as the Capitals collected their seventh win in the previous eight games.

David Pastrnak scored his NHL-leading 26th goal for Boston but the Bruins have dropped four consecutive games (0-3-1).

Oshie often overlooked

Whether it’s Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Carlson or Holtby, Oshie is often neglected when listing the Capitals’ star power.

Since being acquired in July of 2015, Oshie has been a consistent offensive threat for the Capitals in the previous four-plus seasons. He has averaged 25.5 goals and added his 12th and 13th of this season in stellar fashion on Wednesday.

Oshie made a quick deke to his forehand before ringing a shot off the crossbar, but then finished his own rebound to even the score early in the second period.

Oshie gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead with a highlight-reel goal. The American forward danced around Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton before converting a nifty deke 3:30 after his first of the game.

While other players in Washington’s lineup receive credit for the Capitals’ strong play in recent years, Oshie should not be forgotten about as he has proven to be a key piece to the puzzle in Washington.

Pastrnak remains red-hot

The Czech winger has solidified himself as one the best pure goal scorers in the NHL today and recorded his 26th goal of the season on Wednesday. No. 88 is on pace for 67 goals this season and has helped the Boston Bruins secure a 10-point lead in the Atlantic Division.

Pastrnak tallied a short-side snipe to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead against the Capitals Wednesday. Defenseman Charlie McAvoy was able to complete a cross-ice pass because centerman Patrice Bergeron skated hard to the net in order to create an open passing lane.

If Pastrnak is able to continue this torrid pace, he could be in line to collect a lot of hardware at the NHL Awards show and help the Bruins collect a trophy they fell just short of last season.

Ovechkin’s office

The sign of dominance in any competitive sport is if you can continue to repeat an action while your opponent is aware of what is coming.

For Alex Ovechkin, his presence from the left circle throughout the course of his career has been spectacular. The captain of the Washington Capitals has recorded 299 of his 679 goals (44%) from the left circle or above. And since the 2012-13 season, 54% of his goals have come from that spot on the ice.

NHL teams will continue to game plan and know exactly where No. 8 will be on the ice, especially when Washington is on a power play, but his excellence from that area should be viewed in the same breath as Wayne Gretzky’s operation from behind the net.

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

Flyers vs. Avalanche livestream: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Flyers and Avalanche have both won six of their last seven games and each enter this matchup in playoff position in their respective conferences. This is the first of two meetings this season as these two will play at Philadelphia on Feb. 1.

Nathan MacKinnon, the first overall pick in 2013, is having another standout season. After MacKinnon’s breakout season in 2017-18 (39 goals, 97 points), he upped those totals last season with two more goals and this season he’s tracking towards another career-best year. MacKinnon ranks third in the NHL in points (47) and is tied for fourth in goals (19) this season.

Travis Konecny leads Philadelphia with 28 points this season and is tied with Oskar Lindblom for the team lead in goals (11). Konecny took a hard, open-ice hit from Mark Borowiecki late in the first period on Saturday and did not return – he’s out indefinitely with a concussion. The 22-year-old Konecny was having a career season, on pace for 30 goals and 76 points.

Sean Couturier (22 points), Claude Giroux (21) and Jakub Voracek (21) are next on the team in scoring. Couturier has scored 30-plus goals each of the last two seasons as he’s totaled 76 points both years (his career high). Giroux already has four game-winning goals this season (as many as he had all of last year). Voracek has five points in the last five games (all assists).

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 9:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Philadelphia Flyers at Colorado Avalanche
WHERE: Pepsi Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Dec. 11, 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Flyers-Avalanche stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

FLYERS
Claude Giroux – Sean Couturier – Jakub Voracek
James van Riemsdyk – Morgan Frost – Tyler Pitlick
Scott LaughtonKevin HayesJoel Farabee
Chris Stewart – Mikhail Vorobyev – David Kase

Ivan ProvorovMatt Niskanen
Travis SanheimJustin Braun
Shayne GostisbehereRobert Hagg

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

AVALANCHE
Gabriel Landeskog – Nathan MacKinnon – Mikko Rantanen
Andre BurakovskyNazem KadriJoonas Donskoi
Matt CalvertPierre-Edouard BellemareValeri Nichushkin
Matt NietoJ.T. CompherTyson Jost

Nikita ZadorovSamuel Girard
Ryan GravesIan Cole
Calle Rosen – Mark Barberio

Starting goalie: Pavel Francouz

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones and NHL insider Darren Dreger. Chris Cuthbert will handle play-by-play duties alongside Pierre McGuire at Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.

Peter DeBoer out as San Jose Sharks head coach

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The San Jose Sharks cut ties with head coach Peter DeBoer Wednesday evening. Bob Boughner will take over behind the Sharks bench on an interim basis.

San Jose has lost its last five games and currently sits in sixth place in the Pacific Division with a 15-16-2 record. The Sharks have been outscored 15-3 in the previous three games.

“When you have had a level of past success, change is never easy, but we feel this team is capable of much more than we have shown thus far and that a new voice is needed,” Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said in a statement. “As a team and as individuals, our play has not met expectations this year and our level of consistency has not been where it needs to be. This group of individuals who will lead our team moving forward are very familiar with our players, and we think this change can provide our group with a fresh start.

“Under the leadership of Pete, along with Steve, Dave and Johan, our franchise accomplished some great things, culminating in reaching the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. We want to thank them for their contributions to our organization’s success over the last four years.”

DeBoer was not the only coaching change. Assistant coaches Steve Spott, Dave Barr and goaltending coach Johan Hedberg were also relieved of their duties.

Boughner will be the boss behind the bench and will be joined by associate coach Roy Sommer, assistant coach Mike Ricci and goaltending coach Evgeni Nabokov. Dan Darrow will remain in his current role of assistant coach, video.

The Sharks are the fifth team to make a coaching change this season along with the Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars, New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs.

San Jose will host the New York Rangers Thursday.