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Three questions facing Colorado Avalanche

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

Some questions to ponder regarding the 2018-19 Colorado Avalanche…

[Avalanche Day: Looking back | Under PressureBreakthrough ]

1. How good will Philipp Grubauer be?

The Avalanche made a big splash this offseason by getting Philipp Grubauer from the Washington Capitals in exchange for a second-round draft pick and taking on Brooks Orpik‘s contract (which was then bought out, allowing Orpik to return to Washington on a cheaper salary). The Avalanche immediately signed him to a three-year contract, presumably to be their long-term starting goalie.

The question is just how good he can be?  In his limited playing time with the Capitals Grubauer performed as well as any other goalie in the NHL, and was so good this past season that Barry Trotz actually gave him the starting job heading into the playoffs. It was a role he kept for two games before being replaced by long-time starter Braden Holtby — who then helped lead the team to the Stanley Cup — but it was still an incredibly strong statement in the belief that the Capitals had in Grubauer.

His limited resume is very encouraging, and he has certainly at least earned the right to be a starter. But it is all still based on an extremely small sampling of data, while goaltenders can be extremely difficult to project.

The potential is certainly there for the Avalanche to have landed an excellent starting goalie, but it is still very much of a mystery.

2. What about the defense? 

The Avalanche have been a bad defensive team in recent years, giving up shots and shot attempts at a rate that has consistently placed them among the worst in the league.

Even with their turnaround in the standings this past season, that was still true. One of the things that bailed them out was the fact they received strong goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier. This year the job gets passed along to Varlamov and Grubauer. Still, it would be beneficial for the Avalanche if they could become a better shot suppression team and not have to lean on their goaltenders so much.

Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie have been the mainstays on the blue line in recent seasons, and despite the trade rumors that always seem to follow Barrie around he is still a member of the team.

Nikita Zadorov, one of the pieces from the Ryan O'Reilly trade, took some positive steps forward this past season and is still only 23 years old. Samuel Girard, one of the players they picked up in the Matt Duchene trade is also loaded with potential and had a promising debut with the Avalanche this past season.

Then they also brought in Ian Cole in free agency on a three-year contract that will pay him more than $12 million (just over $4 million per season). Cole is a fearless shot blocker and logs big minutes on the penalty kill, and his role on a two-time Stanley Cup champion in Pittsburgh has certainly boosted his stock around the league. He is probably best served as a third-pairing defenseman, though, and if the Avalanche use him in that role (and with Johnson, Barrie, Zadorov and Girard all on the roster, that is possible) he could be a strong addition. An expensive third-pairing defender for sure, but probably a strong one.

3. Will anybody step up to take some pressure off the top line?

As mentioned in the Under Pressure look, there is going to be a huge expectation for Nathan MacKinnon (along with his linemate, Mikko Rantanen) to carry the offense this season, just as he did this past season. Whether or not he does that remains to be seen, but even if he does if the Avalanche are going to take the next step from a fringe playoff team to a contender in the Western Conference they are going to need another line (or two … or three) to emerge as a threat offensively. When the MacKinnon-Rantanen duo was off the ice this past season the Avalanche were still a team that was outshot and outscored. That is not going to be good enough, and if there is any sort of a regression from the top line it could erase all the positive strides the Avalanche made in 2017-18.

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.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

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.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.

Panthers down another goalie, injured Driedger to miss weeks

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida goalie Chris Driedger will miss several weeks with what’s believed to be a groin injury, the latest health issue at that position for the Panthers.

The Panthers announced the diagnosis Saturday, calling it a lower-body injury.

Driedger was hurt midway through the first period of the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. He is 5-2-0 in nine appearances for Florida this season, with a 2.48 GAA.

The Panthers have also been without goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for much of January while he recovers from an upper-body injury.

Florida begins a stretch of six consecutive road games Saturday in Detroit. That six-game run also includes the All-Star break and the Panthers’ bye week.