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Beyond MacKinnon: A look at rising Avalanche

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The Colorado Avalanche probably wish they could push their bye week back, or cancel it altogether.

Such logic would be understandable after last night’s jarring win: a 7-2 drubbing of the Minnesota Wild. The Avs impressed their Central Division rivals, as The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports (sub required):

“They’ve got some good young players,” Eric Staal said. “They’ve got quickness. They’ve got, it looks like, a better belief in the style of game they need to play. When you’re that far behind the eight-ball the way they were last year, sometimes it’s difficult to be up for games. But they’re real competitive.”

That 7-2 mark represented the Avalanche’s fifth consecutive victory, placing them – for the time being – in one of the West’s wild card spots. Remarkably, they’ve generated 47 standings points in 41 games in 2017-18 after generating just 48 in all of 2016-17.

With all of that in mind, it might be entertaining and informative to do a deep dive on the Avalanche. Let’s look at what’s been working during the winning streak and beyond.

Nate Mac, duh

The most obvious reason is one that sticks out like a frostbitten thumb: Nathan MacKinnon‘s explosion from very good player to superstar.

We won’t beat that drum too much again, as we’ve already done so here and here. Just note that MacKinnon has an absurd 12 points during this five-game winning streak (three goals, nine assists) and is ranked second in scoring with 52 points overall.

More than Mac

Don’t look now, but Samuel Girard has five points in as many games, so Avs fans shouldn’t fret about Matt Duchene starting to heat up in Ottawa. Young players are driving much of Colorado’s success, as Alex Kerfoot would probably be getting more attention as a strong rookie in a weaker Calder year, while Mikko Rantanen continues to ascend the ranks alongside MacKinnon.

At 25, Gabriel Landeskog isn’t quite old, but he’s experienced compared to some of those other names. The sturdy Swede has 32 points in 37 games this season, just one short of tying his 2016-17 total.

Bernier up the charts

Much like James Reimer in Florida, Jonathan Bernier is a backup with some starting experience who’s taking advantage of an opportunity to shine with his team’s starter (in this case, Semyon Varlamov) on the shelf.

Bernier hasn’t been lights-out overall (still just 9-7-1 with .909 save percentage), yet he’s been burning it up during this run. The former first-rounder is on a four-game winning streak, allowing five goals and nabbing one shutout.

Power play showing some power

The Avalanche have generated at least one power-play goal in four of five games during this winning streak, generating seven overall (7-for-17).

A longer run

A five-game winning streak is only so much during an 82-game regular season. The positive thing is that the Avalanche’s run really goes deeper than this surge.

When the Avs fell 5-2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Dec. 7, their record dipped to 12-13-2. Since then, they’ve only lost four times, going 10-3-1 to improve to 22-16-3 overall.

Paying the toll

One thing to note is that the Avalanche have enjoyed some home-cooking lately. Yesterday ended a six-game homestand, and they’ve played nine of their last 11 in Colorado. They’ll pay that debt back soon enough, as they’ll face a six-game road trip and nine of 10 on the road during this stretch:

Mon, Jan 22 @ Toronto
Tue, Jan 23 @ Montreal
Thu, Jan 25 @ St. Louis
Tue, Jan 30 @ Vancouver
Thu, Feb 1 @ Edmonton
Sat, Feb 3 @ Winnipeg
Tue, Feb 6 vs San Jose
Thu, Feb 8 @ St. Louis
Sat, Feb 10 @ Carolina
Sun, Feb 11 @ Buffalo

With that in mind, the Avalanche should push that much harder to avoid sleepwalking out of this break. They play one road game next Saturday and then enjoy a three-game homestand before that stretch listed above, so they might want to build a buffer for themselves.

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The good news is that the Avalanche are wiping away the ugly memories of last season, and doing so to a degree that surprises even those who were optimistic that they could improve. The only downside is that they’re raising expectations, and that might make a dip more disappointing.

Still, they’ll take 47 points midway through a season over 48 during a full season any day.

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.

Rangers beat Penguins in OT thanks to Kakko’s big night

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Kaapo Kakko looked dominant, at times, against men before he was drafted, including versus some NHL talent during the 2019 IIHF World Championship. The feeling was that he could make an immediate and successful jump from being the second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft to becoming an instant impact player for the New York Rangers, possibly outshining top pick Jack Hughes for the Devils.

A little more than a month into his career, it’s been up-and-down for Kakko, but we might just look at Tuesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins as a breakthrough moment.

Rangers start strong

Kakko took advantage of a bodacious Brendan Lemieux pass to score the first goal of Tuesday’s game, then ended up collecting the game-winner in overtime as the Rangers beat the Penguins 3-2 (OT). You could call it a big night not just for Kakko, but the Rangers’ youth in general, as Adam Fox set up Kakko’s OT game-winner, and also scored the Rangers’ second goal off of a great feed by Artemi Panarin.

Here’s that OT-winner for your viewing pleasure:

The Rangers dominated the first period, ending in 2-0, and credit to Matt Murray for keeping it from being any worse. Natural Stat Trick’s period-by-period graph provides another way of showing how dramatic the bad start was for Pittsburgh:

Penguins roll with the punches, and break a slump

The point’s been made that the Penguins have had a knack for rallying lately, and they did again on Tuesday — just not for the win.

Pittsburgh scored two goals in the second period to tie things up. Maybe the biggest sigh of relief came on the second tally, and not just because it made the game 2-2 at the time. After going 0-for-28 in their last power-play opportunities and failing to score on the man advantage for almost a month, Jared McCann finally ended that drought.

That second-period effort was enough for the Penguins to secure a standings point despite falling behind 2-0 early on, but Fox and Kakko combined for the game-winner.

Kakko is now at six goals and eight points over his first 16 NHL games, while this also marks his first point streak (he scored a goal against the Panthers on Sunday). With that goal and assist, Fox generated his first multi-point game, but the defenseman has already been a quick study (insert Harvard joke), as this pushes his own point streak to five games (two goals, four assists for six points during that span). Fox also has eight points in 16 games this season.

Recent play of both teams

The Penguins will get a dose of the top two picks of the 2019 NHL Draft this week, as their next game is against Hughes and the Devils on Friday. After that, the Penguins play five of their next six games at home from Nov. 16-27, so maybe they’ll get some confidence in breaking that PP drought and at least getting a point with Sidney Crosby on the shelf for an unclear duration of time. Pittsburgh’s record sank to 10-6-2 for 22 points.

The Rangers, meanwhile, continue to quietly build up steam. They’ve gone 4-0-1 in their last five games, five of their last seven (5-1-1) to improve to 8-6-2 overall.

If young players like Kakko and Fox keep improving, the Rangers might just manage more hot stretches down the road in 2019-20.

If there are still growing pains as much as gains … well, at least Kakko & Co. have the ability to make plays like these:

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Lights went out during brief – but funny – moment in Bruins game

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The Florida Panthers were on the power play – and dangerous sniper Mike Hoffman had a chance to shoot from the slot – when the lights went out, briefly, at TD Garden on Tuesday night.

Now, this wasn’t like the blackout at Boston Garden during the 1988 Stanley Cup Final, when a Game 4 against the mighty Edmonton Oilers had to be replayed in its entirety in Edmonton because of such an outage. In that case, it went wrong for the Bruins, as they had managed a 3-3 tie during the second period of that nullified contest against that dynastic team.

In Tuesday’s case, you could imagine someone, somewhere – probably in Florida – claiming it was all a big conspiracy. For just a moment or two, the lights went out when the Bruins were killing a penalty. This screen grab of Sportsnet’s video (which you can watch fully above this post’s headline) gives you an idea of Hoffman’s location … if you squint a little. Actually, allow some help, as I fight the urge to go full John Madden in telestrator mode:

Apologies to conspiracy theorists, but these things happen. The brightest side is that it wasn’t a situation where a check was about to be delivered, as that could have made for a dangerous moment.

***

That wasn’t the only wild part of Tuesday’s game. The Bruins had a 4-0 lead in the third period against the Panthers, yet Florida ended up winning 5-4 via a shootout. Wow.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Rangers’ Lemieux sets up Kakko for beauty vs. Penguins

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The New York Rangers ended the first period up 2-0 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday (watch live on NBCSN; stream here) thanks, in part, to some tremendous passing.

Most impressively, Brendan Lemieux sent a tremendous long bomb of a pass, beating multiple Penguins defenders, to Kaapo Kakko, who scored what might have been his best goal in the NHL so far by finishing the play with great moves.

This marks the first multi-game point streak for Kakko, 18, who also scored a goal against the Florida Panthers on Sunday. The second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft now has five goals and seven points so far in his rookie season, and still has two periods to add more during his 16th game.

The Penguins failed on two power plays in the first period, pushing them to 0-for-28. They haven’t scored a PPG since mid-October.

[More on the Penguins’ struggling power play]

To make matters worse for the Penguins, Artemi Panarin sent a tremendous pass to defenseman Adam Fox for the 2-0 goal with less than 10 seconds left.

Pittsburgh’s been a slow-starting team quite often in 2019-20, and in some cases have been able to rally for comeback wins. We’ll see if they can pull off another one on Tuesday, as it’s been a very weak start, and it’s possible it could have been more than a 2-0 lead for the Rangers after 20 minutes.

***

The Penguins ended up rallying back to tie the game 2-2, and sent it to overtime. Kakko scored again in OT, however, giving the Rangers the win. More here.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins meet Rangers 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 New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Penguins are coming off a 3-2 (SO) win on Saturday – a game they trailed 2-0 midway through the second period. It was their third straight game rallying from a multi-goal deficit. Despite earning the win against Chicago, Sidney Crosby left in the third period with a lower-body injury. He has been ruled out for this game, and his status beyond that is unknown.

Pittsburgh enters this game on a massive power play drought. They have not scored a power play goal in their previous 11 games, going 0-for-25 in that span. The total drought actually extends to the game prior to that, when they failed on their final attempt, so the Pens are 0-for-their-last-26 overall.

Rangers No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad has missed the last six games with an upper-body injury, suffered on Oct. 27 on a hit from Patrice Bergeron. Zibanejad will reportedly not travel with the team to Florida, meaning he is out for at least the next three games. He was leading the team with 11 points in nine games prior to his departure from the lineup.

After alternating starts at the beginning of the season, the Rangers have spent the past few weeks giving chunks of consecutive starts to each of their netminders. Alex Georgiev will get the start in this game – his seventh of the season – after Henrik Lundqvist started the previous three.

[COVERAGE OF PENGUINS-RANGERS BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers
WHERE: Madison Square Garden
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 12, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Penguins-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Alex GalchenyukJared McCannJake Guentzel
Dominik SimonEvgeni MalkinBryan Rust
Dominik KahunNick BjugstadSam Lafferty
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Brian DumoulinJohn Marino
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Jack JohnsonJuuso Riikola

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

RANGERS
Artemi PanarinRyan StromeJesper Fast
Chris Kreider – Filip Chytil – Pavel Buchnevich
Brendan LemieuxBrett HowdenKaapo Kakko
Greg McKeggLias AnderssonBrendan Smith

Libor HajekJacob Trouba
Brady SkjeiTony DeAngelo
Ryan Lindgren – Adam Fox

Starting goalie: Alexandar Georgiev

MORE: Crosby out vs. Rangers, injury still being evaluated

Brendan Burke and Joe Micheletti will call the Penguins-Rangers showdown from Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y. Paul Burmeister will anchor studio coverage with analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp.