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MacKinnon, Grubauer leading Avs’ playoff charge

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Two weeks ago the Colorado Avalanche looked like they were done.

They were in 10th place in the Western Conference, four points out of a playoff spot, had lost four of their previous six games, and were just finding out that Gabriel Landeskog — their captain and one of their three best players — was going to be sidelined for the next four-to-six weeks.

Or in other words, most of the remaining schedule.

Given how top-heavy the Avalanche lineup has been this season with Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen carrying the bulk of the load offensively, plus how much the team had struggled over the previous few months following a white-hot start and where they were in the standings, it would have been easy to write them off entirely. No one would have blamed you if you did because in most seasons that would have probably been enough to sink them.

But this, again, is not most seasons in the Western Conference Wild Card race where nobody seems to want to claim the second spot.

Thanks to their 3-1 win over the Dallas Stars on Thursday night, their third win in a row and fourth in the past six, the Avalanche enter Friday back in a playoff position in the West, having jumped back over the Minnesota Wild and Arizona Coyotes in recent days. The Wild can move back ahead of them with a win in Washington Friday night, but the Avalanche will still have a game in hand.

[Playoff push: Wild can move back ahead on Friday night]

Overall, their situation still looks significantly better than it did just two weeks ago when they appeared to be finished.

Here is how they have done it and what still remains ahead of them. The remaining the road will not be an easy one to travel.

MacKinnon is still carrying the offense

As he has done for the past two years, MacKinnon is the engine that makes this machine run.

Overall, the numbers are just about as good as you can get in today’s NHL. He has already topped the 35-goal, 50-assist, 90-point mark for the second year in a row, and is also once again scoring at a 100-point pace over 82 games (he would have easily eclipsed the 100-point mark a year ago had he not missed eight games due to injury, and he has a darn good chance to actually do it this season given his current pace).

More recently, he has been quite literally the only forward providing any sort of consistent offense.

Since Landeskog went out of the lineup the Avalanche have only scored 15 goals in their six games. MacKinnon has scored or assisted on seven of them, while he has been on the ice for eight of them. The only forward on the team that has more than two points during this most recent stretch is Sven Andrighetto with three points. Even Rantanen only has two goals and no assists. Along with the production, MacKinnon has also been a 55 percent possession player and is averaging more than six(!) shots on goal per game. It is, quite literally, the Nathan MacKinnon show right now in Colorado when it comes to the offense.

But there is one other player that is helping him.

Philipp Grubauer is finally playing like the Avalanche hoped he would

If you are not going to have a great offense, you are going to need to keep the puck out of your own net to have any chance of winning.

The two ways to do that are with a suffocating defense, or with some outstanding goaltending (preferably both).

The Avalanche defense has not been particularly great in recent years, and still is not this season, which leaves a ton of pressure on their goalies to be great almost every night.

The Avalanche had high hopes for Grubauer when they acquired him over the summer and immediately signed him to a three-year, $10 million contract. Things did not get off to a great start for him this season as he struggled through his first 20 appearances.

Lately, though, he has finally started to play like the goalie the Avalanche were hoping he would be, and his recent contributions might be even more vital to the team’s climb back up the standings than MacKinnon’s.

He has started five of the Avalanche’s past six games and recorded a .974 save percentage during that stretch. That includes two shutouts, only one game allowing more than a single goal, zero games allowing more than two, and his 44-save effort on Thursday night against the Stars.

In his past nine appearances dating back to the end of February he has a .969 save percentage.

That level of goaltending is going to give you a chance to win a lot of hockey games. With him in net lately, the Avalanche have been able to do just that.

Head-to-head results change everything

It is not just that the Avalanche have won a few games over the past two weeks that has helped, it is also who they have beaten in some those games. There is no faster way to make up ground in the playoff race than to beat one of the teams you are chasing in regulation. Those are four-point swings in the standings, and the Avalanche have had two of them in the past two games by beating Minnesota earlier this week and then Dallas on Friday to close to within four points of the first Wild Card spot.

Those wins were huge, and they have three more massive games on the schedule coming up over the next week, including a back-to-back set with the Chicago Blackhawks this weekend.

The Blackhawks are currently four points back of the Avalanche in the standings (with a game in hand) and the results of those two games will go a long way toward determining how chaotic the playoff race remains down the stretch. Two Blackhawks wins in regulation bring them even with the Avalanche in the standings. Two regulation wins by the Avalanche would pretty much bury the Blackhawks’ chances. A clean split (no three-point games) leaves everybody right where they are.

Later in the week they play the Arizona Coyotes. Every single one of those games is going to be massive, especially when you look at the rest of their schedule around those games because it has the potential to be brutal.

Along with the three head-to-head games against Chicago (two) and Arizona, they also have to play a Vegas team that is dominating everybody it encounters right now, they have to go to St. Louis and San Jose, and then play Winnipeg at home. The only remaining game that is not against a playoff team or a team they are in direct competition with for a playoff spot is their April 2 game against Edmonton, which is the second half of a back-to-back after traveling to St. Louis.

The Avalanche deserve a lot of credit for bouncing back and playing their way back into playoff contention, but the road ahead is not going to be an easy one, and a lot of it might come down to how they handle those upcoming games against Chicago and Arizona. A lot can go right i those games … and a lot can go wrong very, very, very quickly if they can not capitalize on them.

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 First Round of 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

2020 nhl playoff schedule
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The Stanley Cup Playoffs continue on Tuesday, Aug. 11 in the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto. The league has released the 2020 NHL playoff schedule for the First Round.

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. The losing teams from the Qualifying Round have been entered into Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery.

Below is the 2020 NHL playoff schedule.

Note: Teams are re-seeded after each round.

EASTERN CONFERENCE (Scotiabank Arena)

No. 1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens (PHI leads 1-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Philadelphia 2, Montreal 1 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Montreal at Philadelphia, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Philadelphia at Montreal, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Philadelphia at Montreal, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Philadelphia at Montreal – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD

No. 2 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. No. 7 Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 1-1)

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Lightning 3, Blue Jackets 2 (5OT) (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Blue Jackets 3, Lightning 1 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 15: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 7:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: Tampa Bay at Columbus, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 19: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Tampa Bay at Columbus – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Columbus at Tampa Bay – TBD

No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Islanders (NYI lead 1-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Islanders 4, Capitals 2 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: NY Islanders at Washington, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Washington at NY Islanders, 12 p.m. ET – USA Network
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Washington at NY Islanders, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Thursday, Aug. 20: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Washington at NY Islanders – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD

No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Carolina Hurricanes (Series tied 1-1)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Bruins 4, Hurricanes 3 (2OT) (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Hurricanes 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 15: Boston at Carolina, 12 p.m ET – NBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Boston at Carolina, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Carolina at Boston – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Boston at Carolina – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Carolina at Boston – TBD

*if necessary

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WESTERN CONFERENCE (Rogers Place)

No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 8 Chicago Blackhawks (VGK leads 2-0)

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Golden Knights 4, Blackhawks 1 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Golden Knights 4, Blackhawks 3 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 15: Vegas at Chicago, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Sunday, Aug. 16: Vegas at Chicago, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Chicago at Vegas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Vegas at Chicago – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Chicago at Vegas – TBD

No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 7 Arizona Coyotes (COL leads 1-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Colorado 3, Arizona 0 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Arizona at Colorado, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Colorado at Arizona, 3 p.m. ET – CNBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Colorado at Arizona, 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Arizona at Colorado – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Colorado at Arizona – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Arizona at Colorado – TBD

No. 3 Dallas Stars vs. No. 6 Calgary Flames (Series tied 1-1)

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Flames 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Stars 5, Flames 4 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Dallas at Calgary, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Dallas at Calgary, 2 p.m. ET – CNBC
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Calgary at Dallas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Dallas at Calgary – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Dallas at Calgary – TBD

No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Vancouver Canucks (VAN leads 1-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Vancouver 5, Blues 2 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Vancouver at St. Louis, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Monday, Aug. 17: St. Louis at Vancouver, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: St. Louis at Vancouver – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Vancouver at St. Louis – TBD

*if necessary

2020 nhl playoff schedule

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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.

NHL Bubble Wrap: Korpisalo, Heiskanen dominate; Golden Knights take control

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Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Tampa Bay Lightning 1 (Series tied 1-1)

Alexander Wennberg scored a highlight reel goal, Pierre-Luc Dubois had another big game with a pair of assists, and Joonas Korpisalo continued his magical postseason run as the Blue Jackets evened their First Round series with Tampa Bay in a 3-1 win. This was a great bounce back game for the Blue Jackets after losing that five overtime game earlier this week. It would have been easy for them to have nothing left, but they did what they have done all season and simply found a way to get it done.

Vegas Golden Knights 4, Chicago Blackhawks 3 (Vegas leads series 2-0)

The Golden Knights are 5-0 this postseason and new starting goalie Robin Lehner is 7-0 since joining the team at the trade deadline. Reilly Smith scored the game-winning goal in overtime to help the Golden Knights take a commanding 2-0 series lead over the Blackhawks. Vegas is looking like a force right now in the Western Conference and is 16-2-0 in its past 18 games dating back to the regular season.

Carolina Hurricanes 3, Boston Bruins 2 (Series tied 1-1)

Dougie Hamilton scored the game-winning goal against his former team late in the third period to help the Hurricanes even their first round series. Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen also continued their great postseason performances with goals, while James Reimer played great in goal to get the win. The big story in this one, though, was the fact superstar Boston winger David Pastrnak did not play. Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said after the game he will probably be a game-time decision for Game 3 on Saturday afternoon.

Dallas Stars 5, Calgary Flames 4 (Series tied 1-1)

This was probably the wildest game of the day. Jamie Oleksiak‘s game-winning goal with 39 seconds to play in regulation helped the Stars pick up a 5-4 win to even the series. That goal came just after the Stars had allowed a two-goal lead to slip away late in the third period. Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk was injured in this game after being sandwiched by Jamie Benn and Oleksiak early in the third period.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Joonas Korpisalo, Columbus Blue Jackets. He is quickly becoming the story of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. After taking the tough-luck loss in a record-setting performance in Game 1, Korpisalo came back on Thursday and stopped 35 out of 36 shots in Columbus’ 3-1 win over the Lightning. In his six appearances so far this postseason he has a .962 save percentage.

2. Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars. The best player on the ice in the Stars’ big win. He scored a pair of goals, while the Stars held a commanding edge in shot attempts (19-10), shots on goal (14-5), and goals (3-0) in his 20 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time. The type of performance you want from a top defenseman in a playoff game. Games like this are why he seems to have a Norris Trophy in his future.

3. Reilly Smith, Vegas Golden Knights. Smith was outstanding for the Golden Knights with an assist, five shots on goal, and the game-winning goal in overtime. He was one of their expansion draft steals and been one of their best players from the very beginning. He has been outstanding this postseason and already has seven points in their first five playoff games.

Highlights of the Night

This is the goal of the day to help the Blue Jackets put the game away against Tampa Bay.

It came in a losing effort, but Patrick Kane had a huge day for the Blackhawks with three assists including this insane pass to set up Dylan Strome late in the second period to tie the game.

Smith gives the Golden Knights the 2-0 series lead with this overtime goal.

Oleksiak finishes a beautiful pass from Corey Perry to give the Stars the Game 2 win.

Factoids

  • Kirby Dach became just the sixth teenager to score a playoff goal for the Chicago Blackhawks in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • No goalie in NHL history has made more saves in the first two games of a playoff series than Korpisalo has for Columbus. [Sportsnet Stats]
  • Heiskanen is the fourth-youngest defenseman in NHL history to have a multiple goal Stanley Cup Playoff game. [NHL PR]

Friday Schedule

Game 2: Colorado Avalanche vs. Arizona Coyotes, 2 p.m. ET (Avalanche lead series 1-0)
Game 2: Philadelphia Flyers vs. Montreal Canadiens, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Flyers lead series 1-0)
Game 2: St. Louis Blues vs. Vancouver Canucks, 6:30 p.m. ET (Canucks lead series 1-0)
Game 2: Washington Capitals vs. New York Islanders, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Islanders lead series 1-0)
Game 3: Calgary Flames vs. Dallas Stars, 10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.

Stars win crazy Game 2 against Flames; Tkachuk injured

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The Dallas Stars and Calgary Flames wrapped up an exciting Thursday of playoff hockey with what was probably the wildest game of the day.

Even though they let a two-goal lead slip away with less than 10 minutes to play, the Stars were able to escape with a 5-4 win to even their series at one game each.

It was probably not the type of game you would have expected from these two teams given their offensive struggles throughout the season.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Defenseman Jamie Oleksiak scored the game-winning goal with less than a minute to play in regulation when he found himself alone in the Calgary zone, taking advantage of a blown line change. That goal came just minutes after the Stars had allowed the Flames to tie the game and was set up by a beautiful pass from veteran winger Corey Perry.

Perry also scored a goal of his own earlier in the game.

Oleksiak’s goal is a massive one because it helped the Stars avoid what would have been a devastating collapse that would have put them in a two-game hole in the series. It would have been extremely difficult to climb back out of it.

While leading by two goals with less than eight minutes to play, the Stars were on a power play with a chance to put the game out of reach. It was at that point that Tobias Rieder scored a shorthanded goal to bring the Flames within one. Just a few minutes later, the Flames tied the game on a Sam Bennett power play goal just after Dallas’ Alexander Radulov had been called for an offensive zone penalty.

At that point it appeared as if the game was going to overtime, until Oleksiak scored his winning goal.

He was not the only Stars defenseman that had a huge game on Thursday.

Miro Heiskanen was the best player on the ice for either team, scoring a pair of goals and looking like a future Norris Trophy winner on pretty much every shift.

The numbers paint a pretty striking picture as to how dominant he was in this game. With Heiskanen on the ice during 5-on-5 play (nearly 20 minutes), the Stars held a 19-10 shot attempt advantage, a 14-5 shots on goal advantage, and a 3-0 goals edge with Heiskanen himself scoring two of the goals.

This game also featured a little bit of controversy thanks to a disallowed goal early in the third period.

With the Flames trailing by two, they appeared to get back to within one when Andrew Mangiapane appeared to score a goal five minutes into the period. Upon further review, though, it was determined that Mangiapane had used to a distinct kicking motion to put the puck in the net. What made it such a controversial play is the fact he was being hauled down to the ice as his skate made contact with the puck. The officials saw it as a kick and took the goal off the board.

That play was especially damaging for the Flames because it also resulted in an injury to Matthew Tkachuk.

Just before the Mangiapane sequence, Tkachuk was sandwiched between Jamie Benn and Oleksiak on a play that left him clearly shaken up. He exited the game and did not return.

Game 3 of the series takes place on Friday night.

No. 3 Dallas Stars vs. No. 6 Calgary Flames (Series tied 1-1)

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Flames 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Stars 5, Flames 4
Friday, Aug. 14: Dallas at Calgary, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Dallas at Calgary, 2 p.m. ET – CNBC
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Calgary at Dallas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Dallas at Calgary – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Dallas at Calgary – TBD

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.

Hamilton’s late goal helps Hurricanes get even with Bruins

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Before Dougie Hamilton was injured earlier this year he was having the type of season for the Carolina Hurricanes that could result in a Norris Trophy.

When healthy, he is a difference-maker on the ice and his return to the lineup for the Stanley Cup Playoffs is a massive addition for a Hurricanes team that looks capable of going on another deep postseason run.

His goal midway through the third period on Thursday night was the game-winner in a 3-2 Hurricanes win as they evened their First Round series with the Boston Bruins at one game each.

Along with Hamilton’s third period tally, the Hurricanes also received a pair of quick goals from Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov just two minutes apart late in the second period.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Overall this probably wasn’t the Hurricanes’ best performance, but they were able to do enough to get the win out while also overcoming a few things along the way.

For one, Brad Marchand‘s game-tying goal with just three seconds to play in the second period could have been a backbreaker. The Hurricanes had just rallied to take the lead and were seconds away from going into the intermission with the lead.

In the third period, Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour was unsuccessful on another coach’s challenge as a potential Hurricanes goal had been waived off due to goaltender interference. Brind’Amour challenged the play hoping to get the call overturned arguing that Bruins defense Torey Krug had pushed Teravainen into Tuukka Rask. The officials did not see it that way and upheld the call on the ice, sending the Hurricanes to the penalty kill. They successfully killed that penalty, setting the stage for Hamilton’s game-winning goal. Brind’Amour was extremely critical of a replay decision on Wednesday resulting in a $25,000 fine from the league.

Then, with just a few seconds remaining in regulation, Hamilton made what could have been a costly decision when he went for the empty net in the and was instead whistled for icing, giving the Bruins a late offensive zone face off. That face off ended up resulting in a prime scoring chance right before the buzzer that James Reimer had to turn aside.

Reimer, making his second start of the playoffs, stopped 33 out of 35 shots in the win.

The Bruins played this game without star winger David Pastrnak who was deemed unfit to play just 30 minutes before puck drop. He played 24 minutes in Game 1 of the series on Wednesday, scoring a goal and adding an assist in the Bruins’ double overtime win.

No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Carolina Hurricanes (Series tied 1-1)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Bruins 4, Hurricanes 3 (2OT) (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Hurricanes 3, Bruins 2
Saturday, Aug. 15: Boston at Carolina, 12 p.m ET – NBC
Monday, Aug. 17: Boston at Carolina, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Carolina at Boston – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Boston at Carolina – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Carolina at Boston – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.