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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.

WATCH LIVE: Blue Jackets-Bruins, Stars-Blues kicks off Round 2

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Game 1: Columbus Blue Jackets at Boston Bruins, 7 p.m. ET
NBCSN
Call: Mike Emrick, Mike Milbury, Brian Boucher
Series preview

Stream here

Game 1: Dallas Stars at St. Louis Blues, 9:30 p.m. ET
NBCSN
Call: Brendan Burke, AJ Mleczko, Pierre McGuire
Series preview

Stream here

Pre-game coverage begins tonight on NBCSN at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live.

NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app – NBC Sports Group’s live streaming product for desktops, mobile devices, tablets, and Connected TVs – will live stream all games airing on NBC, NBCSN, USA Network, and CNBC, via “TV Everywhere” throughout the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1

Golden Knights’ owner says NHL executive apologized for Game 7 penalty

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — The owner of the Vegas Golden Knights says a senior NHL executive called him to apologize for a penalty called during Game 7 of his team’s loss to the San Jose Sharks.

Owner Bill Foley says the call came the morning after Vegas lost 5-4 in overtime on Tuesday night to end the first-round series. Foley said at a news conference Thursday the call came from an executive who is ”about as senior as you can get,” but he did not want to identify him.

The penalty in question was a 5-minute major on Cody Eakin of the Golden Knights that Foley described as ”infuriating.”

The owner says the executive admitted it was a ”bad call” and the league does ”acknowledge” it. Foley adds the apology made him ”feel a little better after that.”

San Jose coach Peter DeBoer downplayed the league’s call to Foley, saying his team was also on the receiving end of dubious calls but he now wants to concentrate on his next opponent.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Maple Leafs’ Zach Hyman needs surgery for torn knee ligament

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TORONTO (AP) Toronto Maple Leafs forward Zach Hyman has a torn knee ligament and is expected to miss a minimum of six months.

The team said Thursday he injured his anterior cruciate ligament during a playoff loss to Boston and will have surgery Monday.

The 26-year-old Hyman set career highs in goals (21) and points (41) this season. He had one goal during the seven-game playoff loss to the Bruins.

He has 115 points in 251 career NHL games.

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1

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The first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs was filled with upsets, crazy comebacks, and incredible individual performances. Now that it is in the books and eight teams still have their Stanley Cup dreams alive, our focus in the PHT Power Rankings this week shifts to taking a look at the early favorites for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have combined to win the award in each of the past three seasons, but with both of their teams eliminated in Round 1 there will be a changing of the guard this year and some new names at the top of the list.

Let’s take a look at who some of them are.

To the rankings!

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche. One of the league’s best players and perhaps the most valuable asset in the NHL right now. MacKinnon was a force in the Avalanche’s Round 1 upset win over the Calgary Flames, finishing with eight points in five games, playing more than 23 minutes per night (more than any other player on the team other than defender Tyson Barrie) and looking as unstoppable as any other player in the league. From start to finish he was the most impressive player in Round 1 on any team.

2. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks. Hertl scored six goals in the Sharks’ seven-game series win over the Vegas Golden Knights, including at least one in each of the final three games as they erased a 3-1 series deficit. They were huge goals, too. After scoring two goals in the Sharks’ 5-2 Game 5 win, his shorthanded double overtime goal in Game 6 sent the series to a seventh game where he would record two points as part of that insane third period rally. He might be the single biggest reason the Sharks are still standing.

3. Alexander Radulov, Dallas Stars. HIs Round 1 performance is just one more reason for hockey fans in Nashville to hate him as he helped knock out the Central Division champs in six games. Dallas’ big-four of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, and Radulov were all great in the series, but Radulov was a special kind of dominant. He scored four goals in the series and looked like he was a threat to break the game wide open every single time he was on the ice. He not only helped carry the offense, the Stars only surrendered one goal in his 94 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time (they scored eight).

4. Robin Lehner, New York Islanders. He was a big reason the New York Islanders exceeded all expectations during the regular season, and he was a big reason they swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in four straight games. He allowed just six goals against one of the league’s most dynamic offensive teams and finished the series with a .956 save percentage, tops in the playoffs so far.

5. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes’ defense is by far the strength of their team, and they did a tremendous job in Round 1 against the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. Their best overall performer was Slavin, as he not only finished with nine points (highest on the team) but was also a crucial part of the Hurricanes’ ability to shut down the Capitals offense at even-strength. The Hurricanes were the better team for most of the series during 5-on-5 play, and there was probably no one player that did more to drive that defensively than Slavin. Every member of the Hurricanes’ defense is good, and he is starting to emerge as one of their best.

6. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. Marchand has been one of the NHL’s most impactful players for about four years now and he continued that in Round 1 for the Bruins. He had three multi-point games in their latest postseason win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, including a pair of three-point games.

7. Matt Duchene, Columbus Blue Jackets. This is exactly what you hope to get from a big trade deadline acquisition. Duchene was a monster for the Blue Jackets in their stunning four-game sweep over the Tampa Bay Lightning, finishing with seven points while averaging just 15 minutes of ice-time per game. He was at his best in Game 2 of the series when he finished with four points, helping to turn the Lightning into “a five-alarm fire.”

8. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues. After what was probably the worst regular season performance of his career, Schwartz came through at just the right time for the Blues to help ruin the Winnipeg Jets’ season. He scored four consecutive goals for the Blues by not only capping off their stunning Game 5 rally with a game-winning goal with 15 seconds to play, but then recording a hat trick in their 3-2 series-clinching win in Game 6.

9. Jordan Eberle, New York Islanders. In his first Stanley Cup Playoff appearance during the 2016-17 season Eberle failed to score a goal in any of his 13 games. He pulled a complete 180 in Round 1, scoring in all four of the Islanders’ wins over the Penguins. Each one of them proved to be a game-changer.

10. Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars. He is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy for the third time in his career and showed why in the Stars’ Round 1 win with a sensational performance against the Predators. With his .945 save percentage in the six games, he is now up to a .930 save percentage 42 career postseason games.

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.