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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.

Ovechkin mocks Hamilton, Hurricanes with chicken gesture

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Did Dougie Hamilton “bail out” on a would-be Alex Ovechkin check, thus letting Ovechkin retrieve the puck for a dagger 3-0 goal in Game 5? Was it a mental mistake by Hamilton, which would still be a gaffe, but not bring into questions of “toughness?”

Whatever the true answer might be, that moment reverberated through the Capitals – Hurricanes Round 1 series, and was referenced early in Game 6 on Monday (currently airing on NBCSN; Stream here). After Ovechkin missed a check on Hamilton, Ovechkin did a “chicken flapping its wings” motion at Hamilton and/or the Hurricanes bench.

You can watch the mocking gesture in the video above this post’s headline, and judge for yourself on that 3-0 goal from the Capitals’ eventual 6-0 win in Game 5 in this clip. Jeremy Roenick provided his take, too.

(Personally, I think Hamilton was confused, not frightened, but perhaps we’ll never truly know.)

Ovechkin’s not shy about trash talk, including in the playoffs – you may remember him jawing at Henrik Lundqvist in 2015 – and the Hurricanes must respond on the scoreboard. Alex Ovechkin let his play do some talking along with that taunting, as he scored a 2-1 goal for a Capitals lead moments after Petr Mrazek was bumped hard in an accidental collision by his own teammate, Justin Williams.

Tune into Game 6 on NBCSN and/or stream it here to see the taunting, heavy-hitting, and tense action.

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: Hurricanes, Predators attempt to force Game 7s

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Game 6: Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET (Capitals lead 3-2)
NBCSN
Call: Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire
Series preview

Stream here

Game 6: Nashville Predators at Dallas Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET (Stars lead 3-2)
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Call: Chris Cuthbert, Joe Micheletti, AJ Mleczko
Series preview
Stream here

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes

Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Predators vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

Holtby has been ultimate closer for Capitals

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With a win on Monday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live streamthe Washington Capitals will advance to Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth year in a row.

It is a pretty impressive streak when you remember just how often they were a postseason punchline before finally winning the Stanley Cup last season. Especially since no other team in the league has an active streak of more than three years (if the Nashville Predators come back to beat the Dallas Stars, it will be their fourth consecutive year advancing to Round 2, but they still need to win two games in a row to make that happen).

It is not easy to get out of Round 1 that regularly.

One of the biggest reasons they have been able to do so pretty much every year has been the consistently great postseason play of starting goalie Braden Holtby.

He is also a big reason why you have to like their chances of winning just one more game against the Carolina Hurricanes in this series.

Especially since these are the games he tends to really excel in.

Monday’s Game 6 against the Hurricanes will be the 19th time in Holtby’s career he will play a game where the Capitals have a chance to eliminate an opponent.

In the previous 18 games, he has a .932 save percentage in potential knockout games (slightly higher than his career postseason mark of .929 — which is significantly higher than his career regular season mark of .918), and has won seven of hits past 10 including each of his past five.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That includes a perfect 4-for-4 mark in the playoffs a year ago on the Capitals’ run to the Cup when he only allowed one goal in a Game 6 series-clinching win on the road in Pittsburgh in Round 2, and then shut out the Tampa Bay Lightning in a decisive Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final (after also shutting them out in Game 6).

Of the three games he lost during that stretch, he didn’t allow more than two goals in any of them, and has allowed more than two goals in just five of the 18 games where he has had a chance to knock out an opponent out of the playoffs.

In other words: Even when the Capitals lose and fail to move on in the playoffs, it has rarely — if ever — been due to the play of their goalie.

For his career he has been one of the best postseason goalies in NHL history, and when he has a chance to finish the job in a series, he almost always plays well enough to do it.

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.

Zuccarello is perfect complement for Stars’ top line

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The Dallas Stars had a problem for much of the 2018-19 season, and it was always a very easy one to identify.

Even when the team was at its lowest point, their top trio of Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov and Jamie Benn was doing what it had always done in carrying the team’s offense.

When Seguin and Benn came under irrational fire from their own CEO in the middle of the season, they were far from the biggest issue on the team. In fact, they weren’t even an issue at all and just five seconds of objective research should have made that clear. When they were on the ice the Stars were carrying the play, dominating the opposition, and performing exactly as you would want your franchise players to perform. Maybe the individual numbers weren’t what we have come to expect from them, but they were consistently outplaying and outscoring their opponents.

The problem was that they didn’t have any other forwards that could do the same thing. Their forward depth was so thin that only one other forward outside of the Seguin-Benn-Radulov trio topped topped the 30-point mark this season (Radek Faksa had exactly 30 points in 81 games). That is not anywhere near good enough. It wasn’t a “star” problem; it was a problem with players around the stars.

But because the top trio was so good, and because they received Vezina-worthy goaltending from Ben Bishop (and don’t forget about the play of backup Anton Khudobin, either) they were able to stay in playoff contention in a watered down Western Conference and continue playing their way toward the postseason. If they were going to do anything once they got there they were going to need somebody outside of their top line to provide some kind of a threat offensively.

This is where Mats Zuccarello comes in.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

He has only played seven games with the team entering Game 6 of their Round 1 series against the Nashville Predators on Monday night (8 p.m. ET; CNBC; Live stream), but his impact has already been noticeable.

The Stars acquired Zuccarello from the New York Rangers just before the NHL trade deadline and in his first game with the team made an immediate impact with a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win. It was exactly what the Stars needed for the stretch run. But because he was also injured in that game and missed several weeks they never really had an opportunity to see exactly what he could provide. They are seeing it in the playoffs where he has already tallied three goals (second only to Radulov) and has given them an additional threat offensively.

It’s even more impressive when you remember he is still finding his way with a new team and still probably isn’t all the way back to 100 percent.

In other words, he probably has room to get better.

When you look at his individual shot and scoring chance numbers he hasn’t created a ton of them, and so far is riding a short-term spike in shooting percentage to carry his postseason production. It would be fair to point to that as somewhat of a red flag for what it might mean in the future.

You have to keep in mind, though, that the injury not only took him off the ice, it also robbed him of an opportunity to develop chemistry with a new set of linemates. Getting thrown into what is still a new lineup, when you may not be totally healthy, and right in the middle of the madness that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs is not an easy thing to do. There is still probably a bit of an adjustment period taking place here.

What is important for the Stars, though, is that he is another high-level player that has the ability to capitalize on the chances he does get, and that is an element the team had been lacking all season.

He is a threat with a proven track record of production.

Zuccarello has been a criminally underrated player for quite some time now and has always been a lock to finish with 50-60 points over a full season. That may not seem great or anything that instantly jumps off the page at you, but it is top-line production, and top-line players are not always easy to acquire.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the year Zuccarello became a full-time player in the NHL, his 0.72 point-per-game average puts him 67th out of more than 570 players that have appeared in at least 200 games during that stretch.

Outside of Seguin, Benn, and Radulov there is not another forward currently on the Stars’ roster that sits in the top-100 out of that group.

Jason Spezza is the only other one in the top-200.

You have to go all the way down to Faksa at No. 296 to find the next one.

There just wasn’t enough impact talent elsewhere on the roster to help support the Stars’ top players.

Zuccarello gives them one, and his presence, along with the emergence of Jason Dickinson and Roope Hintz in this series, is a big reason they have been able to put themselves in a position to advance.

MORE: Hintz becoming important part of Stars’ lineup

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.