Losing ground: Avalanche looking to break out of recent funk

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By Pat Graham (AP Sports Writer)

DENVER (AP) — The Colorado Avalanche could point to obvious flaws for their prolonged plunge: Erratic goaltenders, floundering special teams, inconsistent scoring from players not on their top line .

Or just go with the more direct one.

”We just haven’t played good enough,” captain Gabriel Landeskog said.

The Avalanche were tied for the most points in the Western Conference after games on Dec. 7. Two months and a 5-15-6 record later, they’re trying to get on track and climb back into playoff contention. It’s been a perplexing freefall for an Avalanche team that hasn’t won since Jan. 19.

”Everybody’s kind of taking their individual games down a couple of notches,” said Landeskog, whose team hosts Toronto on Tuesday looking to break a seven-game slide (0-4-3). ”That adds up to the team not desperate enough, not hungry enough, not fast enough, not physical enough.”

The silver lining to this grisly stretch: Colorado (22-22-11, 55 points) still sat just four points out of a playoff spot entering Monday. Any other year, the deficit probably would be even greater.

”We’re lucky,” center Nathan MacKinnon said. ”We’re lucky the West is bad this year. If we were in the East, we’d be (eight) points out. So, we’re lucky everyone’s kind of lost separately. It’s been weird. We had a great start. We were first in our division and we’ve been just losing ever since, so we’re lucky. It feels like we’re 30 points out, but we’re only (four) and we need to remind ourselves of that.”

Colorado finished a three-game trip with three straight overtime losses . Those are a valuable three points earned in defeat, but the team desperately needs wins.

”It’s been two months we’ve been losing, so if we don’t get wins we’re not happy,” said MacKinnon, whose team dropped to 1-11 in OT games this season. ”We need wins. That’s all that really matters.”

General manager Joe Sakic recently gave the reeling team a vote of confidence. Playoffs are still firmly on his mind.

”I believe in the guys in that dressing room, that we can right the ship,” Sakic said. ”I know they believe it. Right now, the confidence is a little low.”

Colorado’s role at the trade deadline on Feb. 25 could be decided over the next few games. Once potential buyers – or comfortable making no moves – the team could become sellers. One thing Sakic won’t do is mortgage the future. He said the two first-round picks are off limits, along with some of their prized prospects.

”For us, it’s got to make sense going forward,” Sakic said of a deal.

The recent struggles in net have plagued Colorado. Semyon Varlamov is 13-13-8 with a 2.91 goals-against average. Backup Philipp Grubauer hasn’t been any more steady, going 9-7-3 with a 3.47 goals-against.

”Got to get them playing with a little more confidence,” Sakic said.

The power play of late has been problematic, too. Since Dec. 8, they’re last in the league in penalty kill percentage and 21st in converting power play chances.

Colorado also is looking for more secondary scoring to help out the top line of Landeskog, MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, which has combined for 206 points.

”Obviously, everything is magnified when you lose,” MacKinnon said. ”When you win, those mistakes kind of get covered up and you don’t really see them in video or things like that. So, it’s been tough. Obviously, a lot of negativity, but we’ve played some decent games.”

Sakic remains firmly in the corner of coach Jared Bednar, who led the Avalanche back to the postseason a year ago – he was a coach of the year finalist – after going 22-56-4 in his first season.

”The problem is not coaching at all,” Sakic said. ”We have good systems.”

The skid hasn’t soured the locker room, MacKinnon said

”Some losing teams kind of turn on each other, but everyone has each other’s backs and we’re trying to win with each other,” MacKinnon said. ”We know (with) losing comes changes and we don’t want to change our team. So, the mood is still pretty good.

”I think that’s the only way to get out of it. If you hang your head and be negative, I think you’re just kind of doomed from there. So we’re still positive.”

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Buzzer: Gallagher’s hat trick powers Habs; Stars end Blues’ streak

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Three Stars

1. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens. The Montreal Canadiens were dominant on Thursday night in a 5-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, turning in one of their best overall performances of the season. At the center of it was Brendan Gallagher who recorded his first career hat trick to continue his great season. After his performance on Thursday he is now up to a team-leading 26 goals.

2. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks. The Pittsburgh Penguins were no match for the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night who looked like the Stanley Cup contender that they are. Tomas Hertl was one of the big driving forces in the win as he scored a pair of power play goals, including one in the game’s first two minutes to set the tone for what would go on to be a decisive win. This game ended up getting very heated late.

3. Justin Williams, Carolina Hurricanes. The Carolina Hurricanes are back in a playoff spot after their come-from-behind win over the Florida Panthers. Captain Justin Williams had a huge game by scoring a pair of goals, including one off of his face. His second goal was a bit more conventional and went in the books as the game-winner. Nino Neiderreiter and Teuvo Teravainen also had multi-point games for the Hurricanes in the win.

More Notable Performances From Thursday

  • The Dallas Stars were 5-2 winners over the St. Louis Blues, snapping what had been an 11-game winning streak. Jamie Benn eclipsed the 20-goal mark in the win for the Stars.
  • The Nashville Predators reclaimed the top spot in the Central Division with a 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. You can read about it and what is ahead for the Predators here.
  • Big night for New Jersey Devils goalie Cory Schneider as he recorded his first shutout of the season in blanking what is left of the Ottawa Senators’ roster.
  • The Arizona Coyotes are not going away. Their overtime win against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday was huge and now has them just one point out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Given where they were coming from a year ago and the injury situation they have dealt with this season it is an impressive accomplishment to still be in this race.

Highlights of the Night

This sequence early in the Washington Capitals-Toronto Maple Leafs game was bonkers.

Another highlight reel goal for Aleksander Barkov!

Tomas Hertl may never score an easier goal in the NHL.

Factoids

  • Connor McDavid recorded his 25th multi-point game of the season in leading the Edmonton Oilers to a 4-3 win over the New York Islanders. One of those points was the game-winner in overtime. His 25 multi-point games are the third-most in the NHL this season. He also had a questionable hit on Nick Leddy in the first period that could result in a review from the NHL’s DoPS. Eventful night.  [NHL PR]
  • Nikita Kucherov reached the 100-point mark faster than any other player over the past 22 years. [NHL PR]
  • Alex Ovechkin scored career goal No. 650 in the Washington Capitals’ win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. [NHL PR]

Scores

Washington Capitals 3, Toronto Maple Leafs 2

Carolina Hurricanes 4, Florida Panthers 3

New Jersey Devils 4, Ottawa Senators 0

Minnesota Wild 4, New York Rangers 1

San Jose Sharks 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 0

Montreal Canadiens 5, Philadelphia Flyers 1

Tampa Bay Lightning 2, Buffalo Sabres 1 (SO)

Nashville Predators 2, Los Angeles Kings 1

Dallas Stars 5, St. Louis Blues 2

Edmonton Oilers 4, New York Islanders 3 (OT)

Arizona Coyotes 3, Vancouver Canucks 2 (OT)

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.

Predators top Kings, take over top spot in Central

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The Nashville Predators, at least for now, are back on top of the Central Division standings.

Thanks to their 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night they were able to reclaim first place by temporarily jumping over the Winnipeg Jets.

Yes, it is true that the Predators probably haven’t been playing their best hockey as of late and still have a lot of room to improve before the playoffs begin. And yes, it is also true the Jets still have three games in hand on the Predators as of Thursday, so this position might prove to be short-lived.

But the recent slump of the Jets has put the division back up for grabs and the Predators look poised to try and take advantage of that situation.

Especially given what their upcoming schedule looks like.

After effectively shutting down a Kings team that is going nowhere on Thursday, the Predators continue their current home stand against a fading Colorado Avalanche team and then get to play Edmonton two nights later.

After that, they have head-to-head matchups against St. Louis and Winnipeg, which are followed by back-to-back games against a Minnesota Wild team that has gone into sellers mode ahead of the trade deadline.

They not only have some favorable matchups in front of them, but they also have an opportunity to really gain some ground and create some distance for themselves by playing the teams they are directly competing with. Nothing is a guarantee, obviously, but the opportunity is there.

You also have to assume that general manager David Poile is going to be active ahead of the NHL trade deadline as he has a rare luxury that most Stanley Cup contenders do not have — salary cap space. And a lot of it.

As for Thursday’s game, it Kyle Turris and Roman Josi that provided the offense for the Predators, while starting goalie Pekka Rinne stopped 28 of the 29 shots he faced.

Josi’s goal, which proved to be the game-winner, was an especially beautiful play that was set up by Viktor Arvidsson.

Thursday’s loss extended the Kings’ current losing streak to six games and leaves them in the bottom spot in the Western Conference.

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.

Kane’s spying sparks big Penguins, Sharks scrum

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PITTSBURGH — It turned out to be a pretty lousy Thursday night for Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan.

Not only was his team completely outclassed and outmatched in a decisive 4-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks, but he also ended up getting himself ejected late in the third period after a line brawl nearly broke out during a commercial break.

The entire ordeal started at center ice and seemed to be the result of Sharks forward Evander Kane trying to sneak a look at the Penguins’ white board as they were drawing up a play after pulling goalie Casey DeSmith for an extra attacker.

We know this is what started it because Kane admitted as much after the game.

“I was just standing there, looking at their bench, just looking at their board that they were using and one of their players, not really sure who it was, jumped over and tried to do something about it and it just kind of escalated,” said Kane when asked about what happened.

He was then asked if that is something he normally does.

“Well they were about to pull their goalie, right?” Just like to think that is little bit of a savvy veteran thing to do. If you can see it, why wouldn’t you do it?”

Touche.

The result of that was a heated scrum at center ice involving all of the players that were on the ice at that time.

Things really started to escalate when Sharks defender Brenden Dillon punched an unsuspecting Marcus Pettersson in the face, infuriating Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. Crosby, Kris Letang, Dillon, and recently acquired Sharks forward Michael Haley were all involved in the altercation.

While that was happening, Kane ended up getting the better of a fight with Penguins forward Tanner Pearson.

The next thing everyone knew, Sullivan was exiting the Penguins’ bench after being seen screaming at the officials.

For the Sharks, Haley and Dillon both received 10-minute misconducts for their roles, while Kane was given a five-minute major for fighting.

On the Penguins’ side, Crosby and Pettersson were both given 10-minute misconducts,

Pearson was given a five-minute major for fighting, and Sullivan was given a game misconduct.

The Penguins’ coach had absolutely zero interest in discussing the matter after the game, highlighted by this exchange that took place during an uncharacteristically short and tense press conference.

Reporter: “Mike can you describe as best you can what happened there at the end?”

Sullivan: “No.”

Reporter: “Or what led to your ejection…”

Sullivan: “No.”

Maybe it was the events that preceded the brawl, or the ejection itself, or just his overall disappointment with the way his team played in what should have been a measuring stick game that soured his mood.

Or perhaps it was the way the Penguins’ meltdown continued after the brawl with Phil Kessel taking an offensive zone penalty right off the ensuing face-off, which was quickly followed by Kris Letang going off for cross-checking Tomas Hertl after the latter took a late swing at Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith. That sequence resulted in an extended two-man advantage for the Sharks that produced Brent Burns‘ 12th goal of the season, turning the game into a rout.

All four of the Sharks’ goals on Thursday came as a result of their special teams, scoring three power play goals and a shorthanded goal.

The Penguins still occupy the third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division but are just one point ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes (winners on Thursday night) and only two points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are currently on the outside of the playoff picture.

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.

Aleksander Barkov can’t stop scoring ridiculous goals for the Panthers

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How’s your week going? For Aleksander Barkov, it’s been quite good.

The Florida Panthers captain has been on an offensive tear, scoring five goals and registering nine points in three games. In each of those three games he’s scored a highlight-reel goal.

Let’s take a look.

Sunday

The 2018-19 goal of the year competition might have ended Sunday afternoon when Barkov drove to the net and went between-the-legs to beat Carey Price.

He would end the night with his second career hat trick.

“I’ve seen those [goals] in the YouTube and in highlights, and I was just dreaming about maybe one day I can score that kind of goal,” Barkov said afterward. “I think I’ve tried that like 17 times in my career. It worked [for] the first time. I’m happy, but, of course, more importantly we got the two points.”

Tuesday

Continuing to add to his highlight reel, Barkov took a pass from Jonathan Huberdeau and brought it between-his-legs and nonchalantly tucked it under Buffalo Sabres goaltender Linus Ullmark’s pad.

“I was kind of trying to look for a pass until the end,” Barkov said. “Then I just tried to jam it in the goalie’s pads, maybe get a rebound. Then, behind the net, I saw the puck was in the net. I would call it a lucky goal.”

Thursday

In a back-and-forth game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Barkov evened the score after a wild deflection from a Evgenii Dadonov shot-pass that was going very, very wide.

At only 23 years old, we have plenty of years left to enjoy the wonder that Barkov brings to the ice every night.

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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.