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.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.