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

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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.

The Buzzer: Crosby sparks Penguins; Aho extends point streak

Pittsburgh Penguins Center Sidney Crosby (87)
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Three Stars

1) Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Alex Ovechkin, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins have dominated the Eastern Conference storylines this season. But Sidney Crosby and the Penguins jumped into first place of the Metropolitan Division after a thorough 5-2 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday. Pittsburgh’s captain recorded four points in his third consecutive multi-point game. Crosby has netted seven goals and dished out 16 assists in 13 games since returning from a core muscle surgery that kept him sidelined since mid-November. No. 87 has also tallied 11 points during a five-game point streak. The Penguins have flown under the radar for most of the season but should be considered one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference and a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

2) Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets

The Jets increased their winning streak to three games with a 6-3 victory against the Los Angeles Kings. Wheeler recorded two goals and added an assist as Winnipeg looks to keep pace in the Western Conference wild-card race. Wheeler was rewarded late in the second period for darting toward the back post during an odd-man rush. Mark Scheifele took the puck from Trevor Lewis in the defensive zone then raced up ice to set up the captain. Wheeler’s second goal of the night came late in the final frame when he redirected a shot from Neal Pionk into the back of the net.

3) Anthony Angello, Pittsburgh Penguins

No matter the circumstances, Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan expect every player in any lineup to contribute in a meaningful way. The Penguins have done a fantastic job integrating players from the minor leagues into their NHL lineup in recent years. Anthony Angello didn’t even expect to play Tuesday, but alternate captain Evgeni Malkin was unable to complete warmups and left an opening in the lineup. Angello participated in the pre-game skate and was ready to fill the void. In only his fifth NHL game, the 23-year-old scored his first career goal late in the first period. Sam Lafferty fired a shot from the top of the circles and Angello provided a screen and masterfully redirected the puck past Frederik Andersen. Patric Hornqvist retrieved the milestone puck for the young forward.

Other notable performances

  • Sebastian Aho extended his point streak to 10 games with a third-period goal in the Hurricanes’ 4-1 win against the Predators.
  • Jordan Binnington picked up his second shutout of the season as the Blues blanked the Devils for their first win since the Jay Bouwmeester incident.
  • Nikolaj Ehlers had two assists and the eventual game-winning goal in the Jets’ 6-3 win against the Kings.
  • Andreas Athanasiou scored twice as part of a three-goal third period to help the Red Wings snap a four-game losing streak with a 4-3 win against the Canadiens.
  • Artem Anisimov scored twice in the Senators’ 7-4 victory against the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Vladislav Namestnikov scored his fourth shorthanded goal. Ottawa Senators lead the NHL with 13 shorthanded goals this season.
  • Travis Konecny recorded three points as the Flyers gained ground in the Metropolitan Division with a 5-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Highlights of the Night

Auston Matthews hammered this pass from William Nylander to score his 43rd of the season. He took sole possession of the top spot on NHL goal-scoring list.

Sean Couturier whiffed but ends up with credit for the goal after Elvis Merzlikins lost sight of the puck before it trickled through his legs

Paul Byron stole the puck from Athanasiou then Nick Cousins set up Nate Thompson for the easy tap-in goal.

Stats of the Night

Scores

Philadelphia Flyers 5, Columbus Blue Jackets 1

Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Toronto Maple Leafs 2

Ottawa Senators 7, Buffalo Sabres 4

Detroit Red Wings 4, Montreal Canadiens 3

St. Louis Blues 3, New Jersey Devils 0

Carolina Hurricanes 4, Nashville Predators 1

Winnipeg Jets 6, Los Angeles Kings 3


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.

Crosby’s four-point performance helps Penguins claim top spot in Metro

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have quietly claimed the top spot in the Metropolitan Division with an impressive 5-2 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Washington Capitals have lost four of five while Alex Ovechkin has not been able to score his 700th goal and Pittsburgh has taken advantage with a four-game winning streak.

Sidney Crosby had a goal and three assists as Pittsburgh improved to 6-1-1 following the NHL All-Star break in late January. Bryan Rust had a goal and two assists while Jason Zucker recorded his third goal in four games with Pittsburgh.

Evgeni Malkin took part in warmups prior to the game but was a late scratch due to an illness. Anthony Angello filled in and scored his first career NHL goal.

“The amount of injuries we have had and what we have gone through, different guys have stepped up,” Crosby told Pierre McGuire after his third straight multi-point game. “But our work ethic has stayed consistent all the way through and that’s the identity of our team.”

Crosby helped the Penguins expand their two-goal advantage with contributions on three consecutive goals in the second period. Crosby set up the recently acquired Zucker with a cross-ice pass 2:52 into the middle frame. The Penguins captain would then add a power-play goal and set up Teddy Blueger to put the game out of reach.

Rust opened the scoring when Crosby delivered a perfect pass 11:41 into the first period. Angello redirected a shot from Sam Lafferty with less than three minutes remaining in the opening frame to double Pittsburgh’s lead.

Pittsburgh took a commanding 5-0 lead before Auston Matthews scored his NHL-leading 43rd goal to spoil Tristan Jarry’s shutout bid. Kyle Clifford scored his first goal as a member of the Maple Leafs since being acquired from the Los Angeles Kings earlier this month.

Pittsburgh entered the final period with a 5-2 lead and improved to 22-2-1 this season when leading after 40 minutes.

Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen has been dreadful since an injury forced him to miss four games earlier this month. The netminder has allowed 13 goals in three straight losses since returning to the lineup.

The Maple Leafs entered the season with hopes of competing for the Atlantic Division title. The Stanley Cup Playoffs were initially a given for a such a talented roster, but Toronto has only a slim two-point advantage on the Florida Panthers.


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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Maple Leafs on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Penguins come into this game having won five of their last seven games (5-1-1) and have closed in on the division leading Capitals. Pittsburgh trailed Washington by 13 points entering play on Dec. 12, 2019, but have gone 19-5-2 (40 points) in 26 games since then to close the gap to just one point.

The Penguins have earned at least one point in each of their last six games at PPG Paints Arena (5-0-1) and recorded their 21st home win of the season overall – matching the Bruins for the most home wins in the NHL.

Jason Zucker, who was acquired on Feb. 10 from the Wild for Alex Galchenyuk, prospect Calen Addison and a conditional first-round pick, has three points in three games for the Penguins and has been skating on the top line with Sidney Crosby. He tallied his first multi-goal game of the season in Friday’s 4-1 win over the Canadiens, and then added an assist in Sunday’s 5-1 win over the Red Wings.

The Leafs enter this game having lost five of their last eight games (3-4-1). Toronto is coming off a 5-2 loss at Buffalo on Sunday night where they gave up three goals in the span of 91 seconds in the third period after the score was even at 2-2. Toronto sits in third place in the Atlantic, but the fourth place Panthers are just two points back with one game in hand.

Leafs star forward Auston Matthews is currently tied with Boston’s David Pastrnak for the league lead with 42 goals this season, and his 42 tallies have already set a career high. The Leafs star has done the majority of his damage on
home ice with 30 goals in 30 games any Scotiabank Arena.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Toronto Maple Leafs at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Tuesday, Feb. 18, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner
William NylanderJohn TavaresAlexander Kerfoot
Pierre EngvallFrederik GauthierKasperi Kapanen
Kyle CliffordJason SpezzaDmytro Timashov

Jake MuzzinJustin Holl
Rasmus SandinTyson Barrie
Travis DermottMartin Marincin

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

PENGUINS
Jason Zucker – Sidney Crosby – Dominik Simon
Jared McCannEvgeni MalkinBryan Rust
Brandon TanevTeddy BluegerPatric Hornqvist
Dominik KahunAndrew AgozzinoSam Lafferty

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call the action at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

An hour-long special on Connor McDavid, titled Connor McDavid: Whatever It Takes will premiere following the game at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The feature provides an inside look at McDavid’s comeback from a knee injury in last season’s final game. Click here for a trailer.

The Miracle on Ice – 40th Anniversary, featuring Al Michaels, who called the momentous matchup in 1980, and Mike Tirico, will premiere on Wednesday night at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. 40 years to the month, this 30-minute special will feature Tirico’s wide-ranging conversation with Michaels about the buildup to the game, his iconic call, as well as the legacy of the moment that became bigger than sports and still resonates today.

Trades: Habs send Scandella to Blues; Jets deal for DeMelo from Sens

Scandella to Blues DeMelo to Jets NHL defensemen trades
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Brenden Dillon wasn’t the only defenseman on the move on Tuesday, as Marco Scandella and Dylan DeMelo were also traded.

Jets get a possible gem in DeMelo from Senators

Winnipeg figures to be in a tough fight to earn a playoff spot. DeMelo could be a nice find for a defense that badly needs help.

Jets get: DeMelo (26, pending UFA, $900K AAV)

Senators receive: 2020 third-round pick

 

DeMelo generated 20 points in 2017-18, followed by a career-high 22 in 2018-19. He hasn’t scored a goal so far this season, but has 10 assists in 49 games. DeMelo can be a helpful offensive piece in a limited role.

[PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker]

Blues add Scandella, Canadiens get more than Sabres did for their trouble

Back in early January, the Sabres traded Marco Scandella to Montreal for a fourth-round pick. From there, they traded for Michael Frolik. About a month and a half later, Montreal’s sly fox GM Marc Bergevin landed a better package for Scandella.

Blues receive: Scandella (29, pending UFA, cap hit currently $2M)

Montreal gets: 2020 second-round pick, conditional 2021 fourth-round pick

Via Cap Friendly, the conditions are:

Montreal will receive the 2021 4th round pick if St. Louis re-signs Scandella before Oct. 7, 2020 or if St. Louis wins two rounds of the playoffs and he plays in at least half of the games.

The Blues are mired in a five-game losing streak. And, really, they’ve been struggling for a month, if not all of 2020. Add that to Jay Bouwmeester‘s health scare and it’s not shocking St. Louis wanted to bolster its blueline depth. Scandella isn’t spectacular, yet he could be quite useful for the defending champs:

The Canadiens gained some serious draft assets by essentially laundering the Scandella contract. That’s good stuff from Bergevin, and won’t make Sabres fans one bit happier.

Montreal already stockpiled quite a few draft picks, and could beef up even more depending upon who they might be willing to move.

DeMelo and Scandella bring different things to the table, but overall, they add to a defense-heavy day of trades.

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.