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Can Avalanche, Sabres get back on track in second half?

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The Colorado Avalanche and Buffalo Sabres are having a nearly identical experience on the roller coaster ride that is their 2018-19 season.

It all started with what was probably considered a pleasant surprise and a lot of excitement, and has quickly devolved into a season that could end with bitter disappointment if things don’t start to turn around quickly. While both teams opened the season with their share of flaws on their respective rosters, they both stormed out of the gate and found themselves sitting with the exact same record (37 points) through their first 27 games.

For any team, in any season, that is not only an outstanding start it is usually the jumping off point for what could be a special year. It is playing at would be a 112-point pace for more than a quarter of the season, something that is not easy to do. That usually puts teams among the top four or five in the NHL and is usually the sign of a team that not only has a great shot to make the playoffs, but even a shot to go on a serious playoff run.

During the 10-year stretch between 2008-09 and 2017-18 there were 45 teams that recorded at least 37 points through their first 27 games in a season, with 42 of them (93.3 percent) going on to make the playoffs. Banking those early season points matters and usually gives teams enough of a cushion for any sort of slump that will happen over the course of an 82-game schedule.

Given the flaws both teams had (scoring depth and defensive, specifically) it seemed inevitable that neither one would continue that early season pace, but they still seemed to have put themselves in a great position, one that would have been extremely difficult to squander the rest of the way.

For the Avalanche, it looked to be a big stepping stone after last year’s stunning turnaround that saw them go from being one of the worst teams in the NHL over the past decade, all the way to a playoff berth in just one season.

For the Sabres, it looked as if this season was finally going to be a real sign of progress after seven consecutive non-playoff seasons and a massive rebuild that has resulted in nothing but losing. With a 17-7-3 start out of the gate, including a 10-game winning streak, the postseason finally seemed to be in reach again.

Despite all of that, both teams prepare to enter the second half of the season in danger of completely missing the playoffs due to nearly identical slides over the past two months.

Buffalo has dropped out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture entirely and finds itself four points back of the second Wild Card spot. Given how far ahead the rest of the pack in the Atlantic Division is (the Sabres are seven points back of the third-place Montreal Canadiens) the wild card is probably the Sabres’ only path to a playoff spot right now. All they have to do at the moment is overtake the Boston Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins, both of which have far more talented rosters.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, are one of the many teams in Western Conference race that are all separated by just a handful of points. With 52 points on the season the Avalanche are clinging to the second wild card spot based on points percentage at the moment, but are also just three points back of a top-three spot in the Central Division.

The similarities between both teams and how their seasons have progressed are striking.

Both teams had the first half of their seasons defined by one hot streak that skyrocketed them up the standings. For the Sabres, it was the aforementioned 10-game winning streak that was powered by a stunning run of good fortune that saw them win almost every game not only by a single goal, but also (usually) in overtime or a shootout.

Eventually that luck ran out. Around that same time, the Avalanche went on an 11-game point streak (9-0-2).

Both teams have also been powered almost exclusively by just a single, dominant line at the top of their lineup.

In Buffalo, it has been the Jack EichelJeff Skinner duo that has paced them. In Colorado, the Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog trio has done all of the heavy lifting.

Just look at the numbers (goals, shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, all via Natural Stat Trick) for both teams when their top lines are on the ice versus when any of the the other three lines have to play.

Each one plays at a Stanley Cup level with its top line on the ice, and then sees a massive slide down to a lottery team level as soon as it leaves the ice.

The Avalanche at least hold up decently well when it comes to scoring chances when their big line is off the ice, but it has not yet translated into anything meaningful on the scoreboard.

The Sabres, however, are totally dependent on the Eichel-Skinner duo to keep them afloat.

This, along with the way they are in danger of squandering such a great start in the standings, has to be especially frustrating for both teams because they have the most difficult pieces to find. They not only have top-line, All-Star level talent on their rosters, they have multiple players at that level and all of them are not only reaching expectations, there is an argument to be made they are exceeding them. But these two teams are showing — along with the Dallas Stars and Edmonton Oilers — that it takes more than one line, no matter how great or dominant it is, to win in the NHL on a consistent basis. For as good as these groupings are together they are still only playing a third of the game (at most) on any given night. That leaves the majority of the game up to the rest of the team, and if the rest of the team isn’t close to that same level, or good enough to outplay the other team’s second, third, and fourth lines none of it is going to matter.

The Avalanche are probably the team sitting in the best position right now, even though they are competing with more teams for a playoff spot.

For one, they have shown some sign that their other lines can at least create some chances. They are not totally lost without the MacKinnon-Rantanen-Landeskog trio on the ice. They also have not been as dependent as the Sabres when it comes to overtime and one-goal games. Even when the Avalanche went on their 11-game point streak only three of their nines wins were by a single goal, and they were only 2-2 in games decided by one goal during that stretch. They have shown they can blow teams out control games to the point where it does not all come down to one call, or shot, or play going in their favor.

If anything, they’ve been a little unlucky in one-goal games this seasons with only a 4-8-7 mark as of Sunday.

The Sabres, on the other hand, have shown absolutely nothing this season without the Eichel and Skinner on the ice and have been almost entirely dependent on one-goal games with a 13-5-6 mark. That is not the sign of a good team that knows how to win close games. That is the sign of a team that has been terribly lucky.

It is also a concerning sign for the rest of the season.

Both teams put themselves in a great position in the first quarter of the season, and both teams allowed themselves to fall down to the bubble in the second quarter.

They now have less than 35 games to figure it out and get back on track to avoid what would be a stunning collapse based on recent NHL history.

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.

NHL Bubble Wrap: Lightning get through to Stanley Cup Final

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  • The Tampa Bay Lightning are going to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in franchise history.
  • Anthony Cirelli helped them making history by winning another series with an overtime winner.
  • Brayden Point returned for Game 6 after missing Game 5 on Tuesday.

Tampa Bay Lightning 2, New York Islanders 1 (OT) (Lightning win series 4-2)

It was starting to look like it was not going to happen for them, but the Tampa Bay Lightning finally broke through in overtime on an Anthony Cirelli goal to win Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final and punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final. For the Lightning it will be their third trip to the final and the first since 2014-15 when they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. They previously won the Stanley Cup Final during the 2003-04 season. For the second game in a row the Lightning failed to convert on an extended power play that carried over into overtime. This time, though, they were on the right end of a 2-1 decision. Victor Hedman scored the other goal for Tampa Bay, continuing what has been a magnificent postseason. The Lightning also had Brayden Point back in the lineup after he missed Game 5 due to injury. The Islanders played Thursday’s game without one of their top defenseman, Adam Pelech, who will need surgery according to coach Barry Trotz.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay Lightning. When you score the goal that sends your team to the Stanley Cup Final, you get top star honors for the night. Cirelli is one of the Lightning’s most underrated players, but remains a key part of their lineup. He is already one of the league’s best defensive forwards and is developing into a strong offensive player. He is the perfect complement to the superstar talent at the top of the roster.

2. Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders. Yeah, his team lost. But he is the only reason his team made it to overtime and the only reason it had a chance. He stopped 46 out of 48 shots on the night and did everything he could to single handedly keep the series going. The only other thing he could have done was actually score a goal himself.

3. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning. He only had to face 27 shots, but he made an absolutely massive save in overtime to stop Brock Nelson on a breakaway that could have sent the series to a decisive seventh game.

Highlights of the Night

Anthony Cirelli scores the game-winning goal.

Hedman’s goal to tie the game for the Lightning in the first period.

Devon Toews scored the only goal for the Islanders.

Factoids

  • Tampa Bay’s win on Thursday is already its sixth overtime win of the postseason. [NHL PR]
  • This is the sixth time in NHL history that both Stanley Cup Final teams advanced to that round with overtime wins. [NHL PR]
  • No team has played more overtime hockey in a single postseason than this year’s Lightning team. [NHL PR]

Stanley Cup Final Schedule

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars

Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

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.

Cirelli’s overtime goal sends Lightning to Stanley Cup Final

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Thanks to Anthony Cirelli‘s goal at the 13:18 mark of overtime, the Lightning are on their way back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the 2014-15 season.

It is there that they will play the Stars. Game 1 of the series takes place on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC) in Edmonton.

Cirelli’s goal ended a slugfest of a game that saw the Lightning pepper Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov with 48 shots and completely dominate territorially.

His goal had to be a massive relief for Lightning fans, not only because it sent their team to the Cup Final, but because this game was starting to take on an eerily similar feel.

One of the biggest issues the Lightning have had in the playoffs in recent years has been finishing series because of a slumping offense that could not convert on its chances. It happened to them in the 2015 Cup Final, and it happened to them in the 2016 and 2018 Eastern Conference Finals.

After scoring one goal in Game 5 and only one goal through 70 minutes of hockey on Thursday it looked like it might be happening again.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It was also the second game in a row that the Lightning were given a four-minute power play at the end of regulation — this time due to an Andy Greene high-sticking call — that would carry over into overtime with a chance to clinch the series.

For the second game in a row they failed to capitalize on that opportunity.

Not only did they fail to score on that power play on Thursday, but Brock Nelson nearly ended the game for the Islanders on a breakaway only to have Andrei Vasilevskiy make his biggest save of the night.

Later in the period the Lightning were guilty of a too many men on the ice penalty that gave the Islanders a power play, but Tampa successfully killed the penalty by not allowing a single shot on goal. That successful kill set the stage for Cirelli’s overtime goal.

Cirelli had briefly exited the game in the second period after a collision at the blue line with Islanders captain Anders Lee.

Every series win for the Lightning this postseason has ended with an overtime goal.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars

Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

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.

NHL schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Final

2020 nhl stanley cup final schedule
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The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Saturday, Sept. 19 in the hub city of Edmonton. Now that we are through the conference finals, the full 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule has been announced.  

The top four teams during the regular season in both conferences played a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The eight winners of the best-of-5 Qualifying Round advanced to the First Round.  

Rogers Place in Edmonton will host 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final.  

Here is the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final schedule.

2020 STANLEY CUP FINAL (Rogers Place – Edmonton)

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars

Game 1: Saturday, Sept. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBC
Game 2: Monday, Sept. 21, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 3: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

CONFERENCE FINAL RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Lightning beat Islanders (4-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Stars beat Golden Knights (4-1)

***

SECOND ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Lightning beat Bruins (4-1)
Islanders beat Flyers (4-3)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Canucks (4-3)
Stars beat Avalanche (4-3)

***

NHL QUALIFYING ROUND / ROUND-ROBIN RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Canadiens beat Penguins (3-1)
Hurricanes beat Rangers (3-0)
Islanders beat Panthers (3-1)
Blue Jackets beat Maple Leafs (3-2)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Blackhawks beat Oilers (3-1)
Coyotes beat Predators (3-1)
Canucks beat Wild (3-1)
Flames beat Jets (3-1)

***

FIRST ROUND RESULTS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Flyers beat Canadiens (4-2)
Lightning beat Blue Jackets (4-1)
Islanders beat Capitals (4-1)
Bruins beat Hurricanes (4-1)

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Golden Knights beat Blackhawks (4-1)
Avalanche beat Coyotes (4-1)
Stars beat Flames (4-2)
Canucks beat Blues (4-2)

Lightning get Brayden Point back for Game 6; Islanders lose Pelech

Brayden Point
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The Tampa Bay are getting major a lift for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final as they attempt to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final.

Brayden Point will be back in the lineup against the New York Islanders on Thursday after missing the Lightning’s Game 5 loss on Tuesday.

It was the second game he missed this series, with those two being the only games the Lightning have lost in the series.

He will skate in his usual spot on the top line between Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Point has been the Lightning’s best overall player this postseason and has emerged as one of the leading contenders for the Conn Smythe Trophy. He enters Thursday’s game with 25 points in 16 games, including at least one point in 14 of those games. He has seven points in the Eastern Conference Final alone even though he has only played in two-and-a-half games in the series.

But while the Lightning are getting one of their most important players back, the Islanders are losing one of their top players.

Defenseman Adam Pelech will not be available for Game 6, a development that will leave a significant hole on their blue line.

Pelech’s absence during the regular season was one of the biggest factors behind their second half slide. Losing him on the same night that Tampa Bay gets Point back is going to be a major issue for the Islanders.

Noah Dobson will be in the lineup for the Islanders in Pelech’s place.

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.