Flames vs. Avalanche: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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It was a 23-point turnaround (84 to 107) for the Calgary Flames this season, and after missing the playoffs by 11 points a year ago they came back this season and claimed the top spot in the Western Conference with six points of cushion in the standings.

It produced their first division title in 13 years, only their second since 1995, and has them going into the postseason as a strong contender for the Stanley Cup.

They have award front-runners for the Hart Trophy (Johnny Gaudreau) and Norris Trophy (Mark Giordano) and a deep, talented roster that is littered with young players just now entering the prime of their career. They are not only a formidable threat to win it all this season, they are probably not going away anytime soon.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, saw their point total regress by five points this season but still managed to secure their second consecutive playoff appearance thanks to an 8-1-2 finish to the regular season that was driven by the firepower of Nathan MacKinnon up front and a spectacular goaltending performance from Philipp Grubauer.

When it comes to individual talent and star power, this series might be one of the most intriguing ones of Round 1 as the two teams boast eight of the top-40 point producers in the NHL this season. It might be the 1 vs. 8 matchup in the Western Conference, but it is probably going to be a lot closer than the gap in the standings might suggest.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Thursday, April 11, 2019, 10 p.m.: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames | SN, TVA Sports, NHL Network
Saturday, April 13, 2019, 10:30 p.m.: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 2019, 10 p.m.: Calgary Flames at Colorado Avalanche | CNBC, SN, CBC, TVA Sports
Wednesday, April 17, 2019, 10 p.m.: Calgary Flames at Colorado Avalanche | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Friday, April 19, 2019, TBD: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames | TBD
Sunday, April 21, 2019, TBD: Calgary Flames at Colorado Avalanche | TBD
Tuesday, April 23, 2019, TBD: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames | TBD

FORWARDS

CALGARY: The Flames have assembled an outstanding young core of forwards, led by MVP contender Johnny Gaudreau. Between him, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm the Flames have four of the top-30 scoring forwards in the league this season, and none of them are over the age of 25. In total, they had five 20-goal scorers, seven players score at least 13 goals, and they finished the season as the second-highest scoring team in the league behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning. They have impact players and depth, which is exactly what you need for a lengthy Stanley Cup Playoff run.

COLORADO: The story for the Avalanche for the past two years has been the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. It a trio that stacks up with any other team in the league and they can — and will — carry the entire offense. They have a little more depth than they did a year ago, thanks in part to the career year for Carl Soderberg, but this is still a team that will go as far as its big-three can take them. The big concern is whether or not Rantanen, who has been sidelined since March 21, will be ready for the start of the series.

ADVANTAGE: FLAMES. Both teams have some of the best and most productive forwards in the league, and there will be a ton of star power on the ice throughout this series, but the Flames are just a little bit deeper up front and get the advantage.

DEFENSE

CALGARY: The Flames are an outstanding defensive team and have what should be the Norris Trophy winner in Mark Giordano. At 35 years old he is still a workhorse on their blue line and was the best all-around defender in the league this season due to his offensive production (nearly a point per game) and shutdown play defensively. T.J. Brodie, Noah Hanifin, and Travis Hamonic round out a top-four that help the Flames be one of the best shot suppression teams in the league.

COLORADO: Tyson Barrie has always been an underrated player and Samuel Girard, one of the key pieces they acquired in last year’s Matt Duchene trade, looks like he is on track to becoming a really good defender. The rest of the defense is solid, if unspectacular. Ian Cole is a two-time Stanley Cup winner and a fearless shot-blocker, while Erik Johnson remains a mainstay in their top-four. The Avalanche are not as bad defensively as they have been in recent years, but they are not really a team that is going to lock you down, either.

ADVANTAGE: FLAMES. They have the best defender in the series (Giordano) and the better depth on the blue line. There isn’t a huge gap between these two teams in total goals against, but when it comes to things that the defense can control (shots on goal, scoring chances) the Flames rate significantly higher. Everything after that comes down to goaltending. Speaking of which…

GOALTENDING

CALGARY: Now we get to the concern with this Flames team. Mike Smith has been as bad as it can get in the NHL this season, and while David Rittich has been a nice surprise, he is a massive question mark going into playoffs because he is almost no track record to go by. Even more concerning is the fact he is rolling into the playoffs with an .897 save percentage in his 15 appearances since February 1. If he falters? Well … has Smith done anything to inspire confidence this season?

COLORADO: Philipp Grubauer had a miserable start to the season but has been lights out in the second half, especially down the stretch of the regular season as the Avalanche made their push for a playoff spot. For the season his .917 save percentage is well above the league average, and in his past 16 appearances dating to back to February 1 he is all the way up to .948. He is, at the moment, the hot goalie you hear about this time of year.

ADVANTAGE: AVALANCHE. Simply because right now Grubauer is the hot hand, Rittich is regressing at the wrong time of year, and they do not have a good solution after him.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Will David Rittich be good enough?

He better be, because the Flames really do not have another option. Their depth at forward and defense is as good as it gets in the NHL this season, and their only weakness is at the one position that could do the most damage to their chances. He has not played well down the stretch, and he will be facing a team that has three top-tier scorers and a pretty good power play.

Will they get enough offense after the big three?

The trio of MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Rantanen combined to score 41 percent of the Avalanche’s goals this season. There were only three other teams in the NHL that had a bigger percentage of their goals go to their top-three players, and keep in mind that Landeskog and Rantanen combined to miss 16 man-games due to injury. This is an extremely top heavy team offensively. The problem for the Avalanche is the playoffs often times come down to each team’s top players canceling each other out and the series being determined by one of two things: Goaltending, or depth. The Avalanche might have a slight edge in goal, but they do not have the advantage when it comes to depth.

PREDICTION

FLAMES IN 7. This seems like a series that has a chance to go the distance. The Avalanche are entering the playoffs on a bit of a role, they have the better goalie at the moment, and they might be able to steal enough goals on the power play to really make this close. In the end, though, the Flames do still have the deeper roster up front and on defense and that should — should — be enough to get them through to Round 2.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Islanders vs. Penguins
Jets vs. Blues
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes

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.

The Buzzer: Elvis, Ovechkin, and others who rocked

Elvis Ovechkin three stars pht buzzer
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Three Stars beyond Elvis and Ovechkin

1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago blowing out Toronto will lead to some hand-wringing, no doubt. Yet, as much as that was on a tough night for Frederik Andersen, give the Blackhawks some credit. Toews topped all in that game with an outstanding four-point performance (two goals and two assists).

Saturday continued what’s been one heck of a month for Toews. The Blackhawks captained pushed his January total to 15 points (5G, 10A). Toews reached that total in just eight games, scoring at least one point in seven contests.

Scratch that. Toews has been on fire for a while now. He started off ice-cold with only two points in 11 October games. Toews took off after that, and has generated an impressive 41 points in his past 28 contests.

Underrated rookie Dominik Kubalik contributed to Chicago’s win, too, with three points (2G, 1A).

2. Riley Sheahan, Edmonton Oilers

Sheahan scoffs at Toews’ slow start. The journeyman forward failed to score a point in 12 October games, and managed one in 11 November contests. Sheahan went and matched his December points total (four in 14 GP) in one contest on Saturday.

That’s right, he generated four points, scoring an empty-netter plus three assists. Connor McDavid dominated in his own right with two goals, but Sheahan helped the Oilers rout the Coyotes. Josh Archibald generated three points (1G, 2A) as well.

This just in: the Oilers have a lot of “that guy’s still around?” forwards. It’s honestly cool to see some of them have such a strong day, and maybe take a bit of the pressure off McDavid here and there.

3. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s as though Atkinson never missed any time. After scoring a goal and an assist in his first game in almost one month on Thursday, Atkinson generated three points (2G, 1A) on Saturday. This gives Atkinson seven points (4G, 3A) in his past four contests.

Others give Atkinson a run for his money, even beyond the next section. Jason Zucker (1G, 2A) and James van Riemsdyk (1G, 2A) both contributed to their respective teams’ blowouts. Atkinson’s extra goal gives him the edge.

OK, now let’s consider Elvis and Ovechkin

Saturday featured enough strong performances that it feels better to give these two a mention. After all, they already received their own posts. Yes, these two probably rank as the “real” third and fourth stars of Saturday, or higher, depending upon your personal taste.

Highlight of the Night

Marc-Andre Fleury is suffering through a tough season, big-picture wise. “The Flower” keeps adding to his resume of breathtaking saves, though:

Comic relief

Jamie Benn provides us with a reason to laugh. At least those of us who aren’t immediately transported to our own memories of hilarious blunders.

That video summarizes the Stars’ night succinctly, as the Wild beat them 7-0.

Factoids

  • Ovechkin nabbed consecutive hat tricks to push his career goals total to 692. He passed Mario Lemieux (11th all-time, 690) and tied Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time (692). Mark Messier sits just two goals away at eighth with 694. Ovechkin also generated consecutive hat tricks for the third time in his career. In doing so, Ovechkin joined Joe Malone (four times) and Wayne Gretzky (three) as the only players to generate consecutive hat tricks three or more times, according to NHL PR. Again, this post delves deeper into Ovechkin’s latest accomplishments.
  • Ovechkin’s teammate John Carlson reached 60 points. Carlson managed the feat in just 49 games, getting to 60 faster than any Capitals defenseman; Mike Green held the previous mark with 60 by game 57. Opinion: Green deserved better treatment from hockey folks during his peak years.
  • Merzlikins authored the 18th instance of a rookie goalie getting a shutout of at least 41 saves, via NHL PR.
  • Cale Makar scored his 11th goal, setting a new record for goals by a rookie Avalanche defenseman.
  • Dominik Kubalik reached 20 goals in his 47th game. NHL PR points out that Kubalik ranks among sixth Blackhawks to reach 20 goals in 50 games or less.

Scores

WSH 6 – NYI 4
COL 5 – STL 3
EDM 7 – ARI 3
OTT 5 – CGY 2
CHI 6 – TOR 2
MTL 5 – VGK 4 (SO)
FLA 4 – DET 1
PHI 4 – LAK 1
CBJ 5 – NJD 0
NSH 2 – BUF 1
MIN 7 – DAL 0
VAN 4 – SJS 1

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.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

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.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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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.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.