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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.

Playoff lineup, injury notes: Islanders lose Boychuk; Flames scratch Neal

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There were quite a few noteworthy lineup notes surrounding teams in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Friday, so let’s rattle them off.

Thomas Hickey seems to be the most likely immediate replacement for Boychuk. While both defensemen have enjoyed some nice years in the NHL, both have been on the decline. Hickey was limited to zero goals and four assists in 40 games this season after generally coming in at 20-ish points during his previous five campaigns with the Isles, while Boychuk’s ice time was down to 16:16 minute per game during the Islanders’ Round 1 sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins. So the loss of Boychuk likely has more name value than on-ice impact.

Speaking of name value, allow a moment to dream. What if the Islanders instead turn to other Sebastian Ahoand the Hurricanes advance with far more famous Sebastian Aho? Would the Internet be forced to come up with something fresher than the Spiderman pointing meme for that? Might want to do some prep with all this time on your hands, Islanders fans.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

  • Maybe the Capitals feel like they need to bring back a playoff hero after seeing their 2-0 series lead against said Hurricanes dissolve into a 2-2 tie? They recalled Devante Smith-Pelly on Friday. Smith-Pelly scored eight points in 54 NHL games with the Capitals this season, and had been fairly productive (14 points in 20 games) with the Hershey Bears in the AHL. His seven goals during the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run matched his seven goals from that 2017-18 regular season, so if DSP can carry over some of that playoff magic starting with Game 5 (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC [livestream]), the Caps would be very pleased. He’ll certainly be fighting to stay at the top level …
  • Could the Predators (another team locked in a 2-2 series tie) get some reinforcements back a lot sooner than anticipated? Both Brian Boyle and Wayne Simmonds were recently considered week-to-week, and perhaps that was always a nebulous descriptor, as they at least were able to practice on Friday.

Interestingly, each player was wearing regular practice jerseys, which bodes reasonably well for the future, as that indicates that they could take body contact. There’s an enormous gulf between being able to practice and being ready for the sometimes-traumatic damage of playoff hockey, yet this is all pretty promising for the Preds.

With the Flames down 3-1 to the Colorado Avalanche and facing elimination in Game 5 on Friday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live stream) this team badly needs a spark, and Neal really hasn’t been providing much of one basically since signing with the Flames. Neal failed to score a point through the first four games of this series, suffering through a -3 plus/minus, just 13:49 TOI on average, and not really excelling from a possession stats standpoint, either.

[To be fair, Neal is joined by Johnny Gaudreau and others as struggling Flames.]

One wonders if the Flames need to give Neal a pat on the back and say “We’ll get things back on track soon enough.” As mediocre as he’s been across the board, Neal also suffered from a terrible season luck-wise, managing just a five shooting percentage, way below his career average of 11.6. Maybe some of that is the aging curve, and maybe he’s depended upon some stellar linemates to grab his counting stats, but you’d have to figure that there’s some potential for a rebound … eventually. Perhaps just not this season?

Either way, it looks like Austin Czarnik is replacing Neal in the lineup. Hockey comes at you fast, gang.

For a rundown of Friday’s slate of playoff action, check out The Wraparound.

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.

Players demand say in women’s hockey future after CWHL folds

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Hilary Knight put aside the jet lag and fresh memories of helping the United States win its latest world hockey championship to begin looking ahead to next season.

Yes, the star forward intends on playing professionally in October. The only question Knight can’t answer is where.

”Yeah, exactly,” she told The Associated Press by phone this week, shortly after returning home to Idaho after a 2-1 shootout victory over host Finland in the gold-medal game Sunday.

With a laugh, she added: ”My mom would love to know that, too.”

Knight is suddenly one of some 100 players without a place to play after the six-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League last month abruptly announced it was ceasing operations as of May 1. Knight had just completed her first full season playing for the CWHL franchise in Montreal after spending two seasons with Boston of the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League.

Knight is in no hurry to rush back to the NWHL, acknowledging she left the league in part by how the league operated, including cutting players’ salaries in half a month into the 2016-17 season. With the CWHL’s collapse due to financial reasons, the 29-year-old said she prefers taking a contemplative step back before determining what’s best for her and the sport.

”I don’t think either model has it figured out, to be honest,” Knight said, referring to the CWHL, which operated as a nonprofit, and the private investor-backed NWHL.

”We want to be confident in something we’re endorsing, and that’s one of the reasons I moved to the CWHL,” she added. ”And now, there’s a lot of different open doors, and we just have to figure out which makes sense for the future.”

Knight isn’t alone.

The five-team NWHL swiftly announced its intention to expand to Toronto and Montreal next season, but players on both sides of the border are using the CWHL’s demise as a starting point for a big-picture discussion on the game’s future, and demanding they have a say in it.

”I think it’s kind of opened our eyes to something that we always knew was there, and to seize the opportunity to really ask for more for our sport,” said goalie Liz Knox, the CWHL Players’ Association co-chair.

”I see more often, women, especially female athletes, being told to be grateful for opportunity. And certainly we are,” she added. ”But at some point that line of being grateful has to be broken to ask for more or to demand for more. … There’s got to be better out there for us.”

Without going into detail, the 30-year-old Knox said there have already been ”a handful” of proposals kicked around in the three weeks since the CWHL announcement. Players and CWHL executives have been communicating via email and text, and Knox expects those discussions to ramp up now that the world championships are over.

Though time is an issue with NWHL teams preparing to restock their rosters next month, Knox said players need to present a united front in knowing they have leverage in determining their futures.

It’s a moment not much different than two years ago, when Team USA players won pay raises after threatening to boycott competing in the world championships being held on U.S. soil.

”Certainly, what the U.S. girls did was courageous to say the least,” Knox said. ”But that’s very much the situation we’re in.”

As for the NWHL, Knox said she doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of what the plusses or minuses might be in joining the rival league. She does question whether players will eventually find themselves having the same struggles making ends meet.

”The NWHL seems comfortable. And maybe some players want that,” Knox said. ”So I’m not saying, ‘No.’ But I’m also saying if given the opportunity for more, I think most players would take that.”

Ultimately, she said, the decision mostly rests on both countries’ national team players because they have the most invested in the game.

The NWHL released a statement to the AP saying it ”understands the players’ desire to consider all options, and we are in the process of communicating with them about our plans for the upcoming season.” The league is also open to addressing questions or ideas players might have.

The NWHL declined to provide any updates on its expansion plans into Canada, while noting the next season opens in less than six months.

”There is a lot of work to be done in a brief time,” the NWHL said. ”The opportunity for professional women’s hockey in North America is enormous, and the NWHL is committed to building the league that the players and fans deserve.”

In an email to the AP, U.S. national team member Jocelyne Lamoureaux-Davidson said players are on the same page. She added joining the NWHL ”is too simple to assume” but only time will tell.

Lamoureaux-Davidson also noted how players have been outspoken in having the NHL play a role in overseeing a pro league.

Though the NHL financially supports women’s pro hockey, it has been cautious in taking a larger role. Commissioner Gary Bettman previously said the league was hesitant about assuming control of the CWHL or NWHL or both because, as he put it, ”we don’t believe in their models.” He emphasized the importance of starting with a clean slate.

CWHL interim Commissioner Jayna Hefford believes the NHL stepping in is the ultimate answer.

Though disappointed by the CWHL’s demise, Hefford said the announcement has provoked serious discussion over the sport’s future.

”This certainly appears to be the end for the CWHL, but I’m extremely optimistic for what will happen down the road,” Hefford said. ”I think it’s time for change in women’s sports, and we don’t know what that change is yet. But I certainly believe the players need to be strong in what they want.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this report.

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

Foligno, Lehner, Thornton are the 2019 Masterton Trophy finalists

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On Friday, the NHL and the Professional Hockey Writers Association announced the three finalists for the 2019 Masterton Trophy, which is awarded “to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

Nick Foligno of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Robin Lehner of the New York Islanders, and Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks have been voted the three finalists after the PHWA’s local chapters submitted nominations at the conclusion of the regular season, with the top three vote-getters getting the trip to Las Vegas in June..

The trophy was presented by the NHL Writers’ Association in 1968 to commemorate the late Bill Masterton, a player with the Minnesota North Stars who exhibited to a high degree the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey and who died on Jan. 15, 1968.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Nick Foligno’s story: Foligno helped Columbus earn a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third consecutive year by scoring 35 points (17 goals, 18 assists) in 73 games, while simultaneously attending to health issues affecting two of his three young children. The Blue Jackets captain, 31, is skating in his seventh season with Columbus and ranks third on the club’s all-time goals (125) and assists (162) lists.

“I feel like we’ve become a stronger family and that’s how I’m always going to look at it. I think it’s made me a better person, a better player and a better leader, hopefully, for this team,” Foligno told the Columbus Dispatch. “I’m going to take it all in stride, but my family is my most important thing in my life and (the Blue Jackets are) my second family.”

Robin Lehner’s story: Lehner (25-13-5 record, 2.13 goals against average, .930 save percentage, six shutouts) and teammate Thomas Greiss won the 2018-19 William M. Jennings Trophy as the goaltenders on the team allowing the fewest regular-season goals, helping the Islanders post their highest regular-season points total (103) since 1983-84. His best NHL season on the ice came on the heels of revealing addiction and mental health issues in a self-penned article for The Athletic during training camp.

“I am not sharing this story to make people think differently of Robin Lehner as a professional goalie,” Lehner wrote. “I want to help make a difference and help others the way I have been helped. I want people to know that there is hope in desperation, there is healing in facing an ugly past and there is no shame in involving others in your battle.”

Joe Thornton’s story: Thornton, 39, overcame major injuries from the prior two seasons, suffering a torn ACL and MCL in both his left knee (2017) and right knee (2018). His rehabilitation work, detailed in the San Jose Mercury News, served as an inspiration to his teammates and coaches. The leader among active NHL players in career assists and points (413 goals, 1,065 assists, 1,478 points in 1,566 games), Thornton concluded his 21st NHL campaign with 51 points (16 goals, 35 assists) in 73 games, helping the Sharks qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 14th time in the past 15 seasons.

Thornton scored his 400th career goal on Nov. 13 and passed a pair of NHL legends on April 4, leapfrogging Nicklas Lidstrom (1,564) into 12th place on the all-time games list and Steve Yzerman (1,063) into eighth place on the all-time assists list.

A $2,500 grant from the PHWA is awarded annually to the Bill Masterton Scholarship Fund, based in Bloomington, Minn., in the name of the Masterton Trophy winner.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS:
Selke Trophy
Lady Byng Trophy

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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.

Roope Hintz becoming important part of Stars lineup

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If you didn’t know who Roope Hintz was before the start of the postseason, you probably weren’t alone. But the 22-year-old has already found a way to leave his mark on the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With his team trailing 2-1 in the best of-seven series against the Predators, the young Finn scored a pair of goals in Dallas’ 5-1 victory over Nashville in Game 4. Even before scoring his first two goals of the playoffs, he kept finding a way to stand out for all the right reasons.

“He’s generating chances, and in Game 1, I thought he was the one that dictated our drive play to their net,” Stars coach Jim Montgomery told NHL.com. “Game 2, he wasn’t as dominant, but last game he was very effective and (in Game 4) the puck goes in. It’s good for your confidence, but we know what he brings to our team.

“He’s a legitimate top six (forward) and he’s made our team have two lines.”

One concern surrounding the Stars is their scoring depth. Yes, they have Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov, but secondary scoring has been an issue in previous seasons. Hintz and veteran trade-deadline acquisition Mats Zuccarello have formed a nice partnership on the Stars’ second line. Together, they’ve combined to score five times in four games.

Hintz put up nine goals and 22 points in 58 games with the Stars during the regular season, but it became increasingly clear that he was getting more and more comfortable as the season wore on, as he managed to accumulate 17 of those points in the final 30 games.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

But his journey to being a second-line player for the Stars had its fair share of bumps, especially in 2018-19. Between Oct. 20 and Jan. 20, he was assigned to the AHL’s Texas Stars three times. As disappointing as that must have been for him, it was probably for the best.

“You’ve got give credit to the staff there,” Montgomery said, per the Dallas Morning News. “Every time Roope went down, he came back a better player. … The last time he came up, he took his game to another level.”

The difficult part for him will be to maintain this level of play and production for the remainder of the playoffs, but he’s off to a very encouraging start. Even though the Predators are probably a deeper team, the Stars have found a way to make this a best-of-three series because of their power play and secondary scoring.

Let’s see if they can pull off the upset.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.