Avalanche search for answers during slump

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Asking just a few top players to carry you through an 82-game season might make sense to, say, the CEO of the Dallas Stars, but such a strategy rarely works out over the long haul in the NHL.

Even so, for much of 2018-19, the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog seemed like they might just carry the Colorado Avalanche to greatness, or some place close to that.

At one point, the Avs were hot enough to be in the running for the Central Division crown, firing off to a 15-6-4 start by late November. Heading into Wednesday’s game against the Sharks, they’re now in a soul-searching period, as a five-game losing streak pushed them to 19-13-8, good for third in the Central.

Let’s ponder some of the questions Colorado is facing as they get ready to host the Sharks on Wednesday.

[Sharks – Avs preview]

Loading up versus finding balance

Amid these struggles, the Avalanche have chosen to break up that vaunted top line, at least briefly.

Tyson Jost now finds himself with MacKinnon and Rantanen, while Landeskog slides to the second line with Alexander Kerfoot and J.T. Compher.

The ideal scenario would be that such splendid linemates might unlock Jost’s potential as the 10th pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, while Landeskog could conceivably give a so-so second-line a big boost of skill and snarl.

Most realistically, this tweak provides another test run in the debate about loading up a top line versus spreading the wealth.

Speaking of wealth, it actually brings some alternate experimentation to mind: would the Avalanche be wiser to see how Rantanen and MacKinnon might operate running their own lines?

Beyond potentially giving Colorado greater balance, they’d maybe get a better idea of Rantanen’s true value. The 22-year-old will see his rookie contract expire after this season, and while a big payday is basically inevitable, the Avs might want to know a little bit more about what Rantanen can accomplish on his own.

Consider that, since his breakthrough 2017-18 season, Rantanen’s lined up for more than 1,500 even-strength minutes with MacKinnon, and only about 150 without him, via Natural Stat Trick. His ice time is nearly the same with Landeskog, and those trends carry over to the power play, too.

None of this is to say that Rantanen owes his production to MacKinnon. It’s most likely akin to Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin: two dangerous scorers who become even more dangerous together.

It behooves the Avalanche to get a better idea of their optimal lineup options. Would Landeskog work better with Rantanen or MacKinnon, or totally separate? Is it better just to load up? Would having the last change make a difference in home versus away situations?

A bad cold streak is tough to spin, yet if they gather some useful intel, there could be quite the upside. Especially if they get an impact player from the 2019 NHL Draft thanks to Ottawa’s pick, thus opening the door for even greater things.

(Sorry, Senators fans.)

Questions in net

Heading into 2018-19, signs pointed to (traded for and extended) goalie Philipp Grubauer transitioning to a starting job, while Semyon Varlamov and his expiring deal being phased out. Instead, Grubauer has struggled, while Varlamov’s snared a greater share of the starts (25 to 15).

Varlamov is injured, so Grubauer gets a chance to get back on track against the Sharks on Wednesday.

There are worse goalie situations around the NHL, but Colorado’s remains hazy.

Somewhere in between

It’s possible that the Avalanche were playing over their heads, and gravity is starting to take over.

By many measures, they’ve been a bottom-third team from a possession standpoint, but they haven’t really been under water to a totally disastrous level. In a way, it’s fitting that their PDO is an even 1.00, basically the indicator of flat-average luck. At the moment, they might simply fall into the middle of the pack, and finding better balance really could be crucial.

Beyond all that, this is a young team, with its best players in their prime years. Those fresh legs could pay off, particularly at high elevation, and those young players could pay greater dividends as they learn the ropes and become more confident.

Getting things going early in 2019 could be a great help, by the way. After two home games including Wednesday’s match with the Sharks, the Avalanche will face a five-game road trip.

While failing to get back on track could make for a damaging stretch, the Avalanche could learn a lot about themselves as they try to earn a second straight playoff berth.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Trocheck hasn’t missed a beat for Panthers

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Vincent Trocheck wasn’t even supposed to be playing for the Florida Panthers this soon, let alone seemingly jumping right back to full-strength, as if his ankle was never fractured.

Heading into Friday, the Panthers were on a seven-game losing streak, facing a weekend that sure looked like it would set the stage for one or two additional losses.

Instead, the Panthers now have back-to-back wins, and they’ve done so against two legitimate NHL contenders.

On Friday, the Panthers beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1. Trocheck assisted on Mike Matheson‘s game-winning goal, posted highly impressive possession stats, three shots on goal, and seven (!) hits.

That would have already been a highly impressive effort for a player coming off a pretty traumatic injury, but Trocheck was arguably even better during Saturday’s 4-2 win against the Nashville Predators.

While his fancy stats were a little choppier, Trocheck showed up on the scoreboard even more, generating a goal and an assist. He looked awfully spry on that goal, by the way:

That breakaway score ended up being the game-winner, actually.

After generating three points in his two games back, Trocheck now has 17 points in 20 games this season.

Now, the Panthers points as a team? They’re now at 46 points in 47 games played, leaving them at least 12 points behind the Penguins (who have 58 points, and could add more against the Golden Knights during a Saturday game that’s in progress). To put things mildly, the odds are stacked high against the Panthers for a credible push toward a berth in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Then again, the odds were also against Trocheck returning as soon as mid-January, and he’s instead making a big impact for Florida.

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.

Ref pushing Blues’ Barbashev gives us some comic relief

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In these trying times, sometimes you just need to see a zany mishap where a hockey player loses a skate blade, and hilarity ensues.

OK, that might be highly specific, but such bits of bad luck usually do provide some real comedy. Even by those standards, this was some good stuff, as Blues forward Ivan Barbashev got a boost from an on-ice official, and it was quite a boost down the ice.

You can watch that moment in the video above this post’s headline, and likely have a nice chuckle.

The Blues ended up beating the Ottawa Senators 3-2 on Saturday, so Barbashev & Co. can share a bigger laugh after the game.

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Speaking of comic relief and needing a push, enjoy the Zamboni from Saturday’s Oilers game:

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.

Bruins’ Rask helped off ice after huge collision

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Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask needed help off of the ice – and took quite a while to leave the ice – after a frightening collision with New York Rangers forward Filip Chytil.

Moments after this post went up on Saturday, the Bruins provided an unsettling – if, sadly, not surprising – update that Rask suffered a concussion and will not return to the game.

You can see the collision (and get an idea of how long it took Rask to leave the ice) in the video above this post’s headline.

This is the Bruins’ final game before the All-Star break, and they won’t play again until they host the Winnipeg Jets in Boston on Jan. 29, so at least there isn’t much pressure for Rask to rush back to action too soon.

Rask began the game tied with Tiny Thompson at 252 wins, the most in Bruins’ franchise history.

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.

Erik Karlsson misses Sharks game on Saturday

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Considering how much Erik Karlsson has been heating up along with the San Jose Sharks lately, it would have been fun to see him skate against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that once tried to acquire him.

That’s not happening on Saturday, as Karlsson was a late scratch for the game.

The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz reports that Karlsson was “limping noticeably” and favoring his left side following the Sharks’ 6-3 loss to the Coyotes on Wednesday. Kurz also reports that Karlsson hasn’t participated in practice or pregame skates for about a week.

Paul Gackle of the Mercury News points out that Karlsson was held out for most of the third period of Tuesday’s 5-2 win against the Penguins for “precautionary reasons,” yet Sharks coach Peter DeBoer indicated that the 28-year-old was expected to play on Saturday. Instead, Karlsson must have determined that he wasn’t good to go after skating a bit during warm-ups.

Saturday’s game against the Lightning marks the second of a four-game road trip. The Sharks are set to play against the Panthers in Florida on Monday (Jan. 21) and the Capitals in Washington on Tuesday (Jan. 22), then they’ll be off for the All-Star break.

Karlsson was one of the Sharks’ three selections to the 2019 NHL All-Star Game, but we’ll see if what seems like a lower-body injury ends up sidelining him from the event. Either way, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Swede miss at least one of the Sharks’ remaining two games before the break, considering that it’s a back-to-back set.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic is also out with an injury, so the Sharks are limping – can Sharks limp? – a bit into that run of off time.

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.