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Avalanche top line isn’t just about MacKinnon

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With 85 points in just 62 games played, Nathan MacKinnon isn’t just blowing away any other season he’s enjoyed in the NHL, he’s scoring at a pace that parallels some of Joe Sakic’s best moments in Colorado.

Despite missing time with an injury, MacKinnon ranks fourth with those 85 points, and his 1.37 points-per-game average is better than those of top scorers Nikita Kucherov and Evgeni Malkin. It was also clear that the Avalanche struggled with MacKinnon sidelined from Jan. 30 until Feb. 18.

Whether you go shallow or deeper, there are a lot of ways to talk up MacKinnon’s Hart credentials.

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

While you can’t ignore that MacKinnon is the speedy, clever catalyst of that wrecking crew of a top line, the other key figures deserve some love, too. So consider this an opportunity to shine the spotlight on Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog and fantastic Finn Mikko Rantanen.

Strong support

Much like MacKinnon only being 22, the youthfulness of this line is the first thing that stands out.

Landeskog has been around the block already, so it might be surprising to realize that the sturdy Swede is only 25. He made an immediate impact in the NHL, going from being the second pick of the 2011 NHL Draft to winning the Calder Trophy in 2011-12. Amusingly enough, Landeskog collected exactly the same goals (22) and points (52) during that rookie campaign as he has so far in 2017-18, although in this case he’s gotten there in 66 instead of 82 games.

Rantanen, 21, is quickly developing into one of the better young scorers in the NHL.

After failing to score a point during a nine-game audition back in 2015-16, Rantanen emerged as one of the lone bright spots for the Avalanche last season, scoring 20 goals and 38 points in 75 games, averaging more than 18 minutes of ice time per night.

This season, Rantanen’s made another quantum leap. He already has 25 goals and 74 points in 69 contests. Rantanen was especially impressive during last night’s 4-1 win against the Blues, scoring two goals and two assists.

That game also provided a moment that illustrated that they’re dangerous in their own right, as Landeskog sent a tremendous stretch pass to Rantanen, who finished the play with a great backhand goal.

While we’re at it, MacKinnon’s brilliance and an injury absence also pushes Tyson Barrie‘s explosive output under the radar. Consider how big of a gap there is between Barrie, the Avalanche’s top line, and Colorado’s other scorers:

MacKinnon: 85 points, 35 goals
Rantanen: 74 points, 25 goals
Landeskog: 52 points, 22 goals
Barrie: 48 points, 10 goals in 56 games

Alexander Kerfoot: 36 points, 15 goals
Carl Soderberg: 33 points, 15 goals

MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog are the only Colorado players with 20+ goals so far in 2017-18. Despite being limited to 56 games, Barrie is tied for 10th place among NHL defensemen in scoring with 48 points. His .86 point-per-game pace is the best among all NHL defensemen who’ve played in at least 20 games.

Now, it’s totally valid to point out that MacKinnon is still the driving force; this post is by no means a way of refuting his MVP argument. Both Landeskog and Rantanen saw their scoring rates slow down with MacKinnon on the shelf for a couple weeks, for example. Instead, the point is that MacKinnon is the leader of a truly impressive trio, with Rantanen in particular standing out as a fantastic “Robin” to his “Batman.”

Contract concern

Actually, the Avalanche may want to find out how Rantanen might operate without MacKinnon, even if they wait until 2018-19 to do so. So far, Rantanen’s been tethered to MacKinnon. According to Natural Stat Trick, only about 96 minutes of MacKinnon’s even-strength ice time has come without Rantanen. The two joined forces for most of 2017-18, too.

The Avs are fighting for playoff positioning, so it would be foolish to gamble on this current chemistry by breaking up lines right now.

But, in 2018-19, it might be wise to see how Rantanen can produce without MacKinnon. The Avalanche already have Landeskog ($5.57 million cap hit through 2020-21) and MacKinnon (ridiculous bargain of $6.3M through 2022-23) locked up to long-term deals, yet Rantanen’s rookie deal runs out after 2018-19.

The risk is that, by chaining him with MacKinnon, Rantanen’s value might be inflated. You could see such a scenario play out with the Oilers, as Leon Draisaitl was able to ramp up his stats during his contract year riding shotgun with Connor McDavid.

Finding two forwards with high-level chemistry is fantastic, yet in a salary cap league, sometimes you want to spread the wealth. If Rantanen ends up costing a lot of money, the Avalanche would be wise to gauge how much offense he could produce as the driving force of his own line.

Again, you can file this under “good problems to have” but it’s something GM Joe Sakic, head coach Jared Bednar, and other Avalanche front office members should at least consider.

***

To reiterate, MacKinnon is “the guy” for the Avs. As he goes, so does Colorado.

Even so, Rantanen and Landeskog deserve a cut of the credit, too, as they’re enjoying fantastic seasons in their own right. This trio could very well make the Avalanche an upset threat in the playoffs as well.

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.

Capitals extend Metro lead by beating Flyers

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The Washington Capitals can enjoy the rest of their Sunday knowing that they won’t have to be worried about being overtaken in the race for first place in the Metropolitan Division.

A 3-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on NBC ensured they’ll have at least a one-point lead on the division. For the time being, it’s a three-point advantage, with the New York Islanders facing the Arizona Coyotes later on Sunday.

Washington had lost two straight coming into this one, including a 5-4 overtime defeat against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday Night Hockey. That game was one of the best of the season between two powerhouses and the Capitals showed they could still run with the dominant Lightning.

Washington then dropped a 2-1 decision to the Minnesota Wild on Friday.

So stopping the bleeding in Sunday’s matinee was paramount.

Tom Wilson‘s deflection put the Capitals ahead 1-0 in the first period, a lead that was padded in the second by Travis Boyd on another re-directed shot.

The Flyers, with their playoff hopes all but mathematically gone, battled back to 2-1 through Jakub Voracek on the power play to keep things interesting into the third. The Flyers put up 20 shots in the second period but Braden Holtby was up to the task, finishing with 35 saves in the game

A breakaway goal nearing the mid-way point of the third period by Jakub Vrana sealed it for Washington.

The pursuit of another 50-goal season for Alex Ovechkin will have to wait, meanwhile.

Ovi has hit a bit of a dry spell as of late, now having gone four games without a marker. With six games remaining, it’s unlikely The Great 8 will be held at bay for the rest of the regular season.

He nearly had an empty netter, but it was defended well by the Flyers and Ovechkin ultimately chose to pass the puck and the play never materialized into anything.

Washington now gears up for a home and home with the Carolina Hurricanes before another test against the Tampa Bay Lightning next Saturday.


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

Surging Avalanche look to keep hold of playoff spot

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday night’s matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

No Gabriel Landeskog. No Mikko Rantanen. And, apparently, no problem for the Colorado Avalanche.

It seems kind of crazy that the Avalanche have strung together four straight wins and put themselves into the second wildcard in the Western Conference without two of the leading scorers. But it’s true.

Already without Landeskog because of an upper-body injury, the Avalanche compiled three Ws and then found a fourth on Saturday against the Blackhawks without Rantanen, who missed his first game of the season with his own UBI after a crushing hit earlier in the week. That’s a combined 64 goals and 157 points removed from the lineup and yet in the first game of a home-and-home, back-to-back mini-series with Chicago, the Avalanche produced a 4-2 courtesy of four different goal scorers.

Talk about stepping up at the right time.

The Avalanche have allowed just four goals across their current winning stretch thanks to Philipp Grubauer‘s play, which includes a .970 save percentage and a shutout in that span. And they’ve found scoring from the likes of Colin Wilson, who’s on a three-game point streak and Tyson Barrie, who has four goals in his past four games.

A win Saturday will keep Colorado in the playoff spot they’ve been chasing for a while now. The Arizona Coyotes, hot on their heels, are also in action on Sunday.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Two points, then, will be vital, especially when you look at what lies ahead.

The Avs will host the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday and then Arizona comes to town for what could be a pivotal game for both teams. Colorado then closes the regular season with games against St. Louis, Edmonton, Winnipeg and San Jose.

It’s a tough slog.

With the way this turtle derby has gone in the Western Conference, a loss along the line probably won’t sting that much. But there’s certainly an opportunity for a team like Colorado, who’ve found another gear, to take control of their own destiny.

Chicago, meanwhile, needs a win and then needs more wins and then needs all the help in the world if they want to qualify.

March started off so well for the Blackhawks after a five-game winning streak, but when you follow that up with three straight losses, it erases most of the good work. Chicago is six points back and a win would make things interesting, for sure.

A loss, however, likely ensures they’ll miss the playoffs for the second straight season. It’s kind of a shame, too. On Jan. 20, the Blackhawks were dead last in the NHL with 41 points. It would have been quite a story, after firing Joel Quenneville, to see them emerge from the rubble.

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Joe Micheletti (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from United Center in Chicago, Ill. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick.


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: Capitals host Flyers on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday afternoon’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 12 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

If the Washington Capitals want their fourth consecutive Metropolitan crown, they’re going to have to stop this little skid that they’re on.

They currently lead the division, but that lead is only one point ahead of both the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins. and two straight losses have prevented them from opening up a gap between themselves and the other two clubs.

Sunday’s game against the Flyers, who are all but mathematically out, is an opportunity for the Capitals to get back on track.

“We didn’t play our game at all,” said Alex Ovechkin after their 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Friday. “We knew they were going to play desperate — they need points, as we do — but I think the sense of urgency was on their side, not on our side…everybody needs points right now. It doesn’t matter who you play against; it’s not going to be an easy one, especially a team who fights for a playoff spot. It’s playoff hockey. I don’t think we were ready tonight, and the blame’s on us.”

Ovechkin, who leads the NHL with 48 goals, will be on 50-watch once again. He hasn’t scored in three games.

T.J. Oshie will be Washington’s featured player on Star Sunday. He has just one goal in his past 10 games but three points in his past two.

The Flyers, meanwhile, need to win, pray, repeat. They lost 4-2 to the Islanders on Saturday and are in tough against a rested Capitals team. Philly is seven points back of the Montreal Canadiens for the final wildcard in the Eastern Conference.

Claude Giroux will be the Flyers’ rep for Star Sunday.

He leads the Flyers with 80 points this season and is on a five-game point streak with seven assists during that stretch.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12 P.M. ET – NBC]

What: Philadelphia Flyers at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Sunday, March 24, 12 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
Live stream: You can watch the Flyers-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

FLYERS

Oskar LindblomSean CouturierJakub Voracek
James van RiemsdykNolan Patrick — Claude Giroux
Michael RafflScott LaughtonTravis Konecny
Phil VaroneCorban KnightRyan Hartman

Ivan ProvorovTravis Sanheim
Shayne GostisbeherePhilippe Myers
Robert HaggRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Brian Elliott

CAPITALS

Alex Ovechkin — Nicklas BackstromTom Wilson
Carl HagelinLars Eller — T.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaTravis BoydBrett Connolly
Andre BurakovskyNic DowdChandler Stephenson

Christian DjoosJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

Six-time Emmy Award-winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick (play-by-play), Ed Olczyk (analyst) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Washington D.C. Liam McHugh will anchor studio coverage alongside Mike Milbury and Keith Jones.


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

Push for the Playoffs: Time is now for Blue Jackets

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The Columbus Blue Jackets aren’t playing like a team interested in making the Stanley Cup Playoffs next month.

In fact, they look like a rather sad bunch who’ve lost their way in a three-team battle for two spots in the postseason. A western road swing has been a disaster for the Blue Jackets, who dropped a 4-2 decision to the Calgary Flames before putting in a worse effort against the Edmonton Oilers, who beat them 4-1.

So Columbus, who spent big at the trade deadline, find themselves three points back of the Montreal Canadiens for the second and final wildcard in the Eastern Conference. Sure, they have a game in hand, but that, alone, won’t do it. If this team is going to avoid all the embarrassment that comes with being the biggest spenders at the end of February and having nothing to show for it, they need to essentially win out at this point.

That begins with a test against the Vancouver Canucks, a team that has nothing to play for other than pride and who were on a three-game heater before getting beat 3-1 by the Calgary Flames on Saturday.

Despite the three-point gap, the game in hand on Montreal and an uber-important matchup between themselves and the Habs this coming Thursday means Columbus still holds their destiny in their own hands. Columbus will be hoping the Carolina Hurricanes do them a solid and beat the Canadiens in regulation on Sunday.

That all might be a small consolation given the week that lays ahead. After Sunday’s game in Vancouver, they’ll fly across the continent home for two games on Tuesday and then again Thursday against Montreal. From there, they’ll head to Nashville on Saturday night and play back to back 22 hours later on Sunday against the Buffalo Sabres.

The fun times don’t end there, either.

They then head home for one game against Boston, get two days rest, and then finish the season with games against the New York Rangers on Friday and the Ottawa Senators on Saturday. Yes, a back-to-back to close out the regular season where they might need wins in both to make the playoffs.

It’s a brutal haul, and they have no choice but to find success or polish up the Taylor Mades.

The good news is Sergei Bobrovsky could play Sunday after a nagging injury has kept him out of action. They need his heroics, and they’ll need more from the rest of their lineup, too.

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

Lightning vs. Canadiens
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Flames vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Blues

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Flyers vs. Capitals (12:30 p.m. ET — Watch Live on NBC)
Coyotes vs. Islanders (3 p.m. ET)
Canadiens vs. Hurricanes (7 p.m. ET)
Avalanche vs. Blackhawks (8 p.m. ET — Watch Live on NBCSN)
Blue Jackets vs. Canucks (10 p.m. ET)

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — Clinched
Maple Leafs — 100 percent
Capitals — 99.7 percent
Penguins — 99.8 percent
Islanders — 99.3 percent
Hurricanes — 96 percent
Canadiens — 62.1 percent
Blue Jackets — 42.8 percent
Flyers — 0.3 percent
Panthers — Out
Sabres — Eliminated
Rangers — Eliminated
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Flames — Clinched
Sharks — Clinched
Jets — Clinched
Predators — 100 percent
Golden Knights — 100 percent
Blues — 100 percent
Stars — 86 percent
Avalanche — 59.2 percent
Coyotes — 32.4 percent
Wild — 19.1 percent
Blackhawks — 1.8 percent
Oilers — 0.9 percent
Canucks — 0.6 percent
Ducks — Out
Kings — Eliminated

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE

Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Red Wings — 11.5 percent
Devils — 9.5 percent
Ducks — 8.5 percent
Rangers — 7.5 percent
Sabres — 6.5 percent
Canucks — 6 percent
Oilers — 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Wild — 3 percent
Panthers — 2.5 percent
Coyotes — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Blue Jackets — 1 percent**

(*COL owns OTT’s 2019 first-round pick)
(**OTT owns CBJ’s 2019 first-round pick)

ART ROSS RACE

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 120 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 108 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 102 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 95 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 93 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 48 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 43 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 41 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning — 40 goals


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