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.

Home sweet home: NHL execs flock back to familiar franchises

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NEW YORK (AP) — Martin Brodeur has been back with the New Jersey Devils for eight months and only walked by his statue once. It’s harder to avoid his banner hanging from the arena rafters.

Brodeur returning to the place he spent the majority of his career sparked a recent run of executives going home to work for organizations they’re synonymous with. Steve Yzerman last month went back to Detroit as Red Wings general manager. In the past week, John Davidson became New York Rangers president and Mike Modano went back to his Minnesota playing roots as Wild adviser.

Yzerman, Davidson and Modano don’t have to avoid statues but do have to balance being beloved by their respective fan bases with the new pressure of succeeding in the front office. There are plenty of recent examples of fan favorite homecomings that didn’t work out: Pat LaFontaine in Buffalo, Ron Hextall in Philadelphia, Trevor Linden in Vancouver, Ron Francis in Carolina and Patrick Roy in Colorado are among them.

Still, the lure of going home is always strong.

”All the things with my banner in the rafters and my statue, this is what I did as a hockey player, but now I’m trying to leave my mark in a different way,” Brodeur said. ”I came back because I care about the success and the fans and the area. Regardless, you still feel the pressure because you want to do well. I’m a proud guy. I’m investing my time in this organization and I want to see them do well.”

While Brodeur and Modano are business-focused now, fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Yzerman and Hall-honored broadcaster Davidson are right in the fire of trying to rebuild proud franchises into championship contenders.

Yzerman won the Stanley Cup three times as Red Wings captain and is back in Hockeytown after eight years as Tampa Bay Lightning GM and another as an adviser. His family still lives in Michigan, he was tired of commuting and he considers the link to his playing days ”irrelevant” in undertaking this challenge .

”What I did as a player is done,” said Yzerman, who will work in the shadow of his No. 19 banner. ”I can’t do any more, good or bad. It really has no bearing on whether I’m a good general manager or not. I have a job to do.”

Davidson understands he has a tough job ahead to try to deliver the Rangers’ first title since 1994. After 13 seasons in St. Louis and Columbus gave him executive experience, parts of eight seasons as a Rangers goaltender and two more decades as team broadcaster before all that drew him back.

”I was here 28 years in a lot of different areas and that makes it a whole lot easier,” Davidson said after his introductory news conference Wednesday. ”I wouldn’t have left Columbus had I not been here originally and had a sense of home, a sense of people welcoming myself and our family back. …. It’s just this is a unique opportunity at a very unique time.”

When Davidson and wife Diana walked the streets of New York on Tuesday night, she turned to him and said, ”Doesn’t this just feel like we didn’t leave?” Thirteen years after leaving the broadcast booth to embark on a journey that has made him one of hockey’s most respected executives, he felt the same way.

Davidson was welcomed home like a conquering hero.

”There’s a lot of good feeling because John is a beloved person here in New York,” longtime broadcast partner Sam Rosen said. ”He was loved when he was a player, he was loved as a broadcaster and people now respect that he’s been a lead executive in the National Hockey League for more than a decade.”

Minnesota is in Modano’s blood after he was the North Stars’ first overall pick in 1988 and played there until the team moved to Dallas in 1993. Post-retirement, Modano spent three seasons as a Dallas Stars adviser, and while this isn’t the same franchise he played for, he’s excited to get back to where his NHL career started.

”It’s always been obviously a real sentimental thing for me, an emotional thing for me to start my career in Minneapolis and St. Paul back in the North Star era,” Modano said Thursday. ”I have a lot of fond memories with fans and friends and everybody involved in the hockey community there.”

Modano will work with owner Craig Leipold, who heralded the Hall of Fame center as ”an important part of our hockey culture in this state.”

The same is true of Brodeur in New Jersey after he backstopped the Devils to the Stanley Cup three times. His job as executive vice president of business operations is about as far away from the pressure cooker of tending goal as Brodeur can get, and it follows three hands-on seasons as Blues assistant GM.

”I went from my playing career right into hockey operations as an assistant GM, so the pressure and the day to day operations was always big,” said Brodeur, who sold his old house to Devils coach John Hynes and rents while traveling back and forth to St. Louis. ”You figure from the first day I walk into the NHL to last year, for me, every game, you get the mood swings, you got everything. I was kind of looking forward to kind of sit back and just kind of look at the big picture instead of the daily grind. It’s been a great change for me and for me family to be able to handle that.”

Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch, who won the Cup with the 1994 Rangers and returned as an adviser, isn’t worried about the heavy expectations on Davidson or Yzerman to make the most of a second act.

”Steve Yzerman, John Davidson – any of these people that are in these positions that are successful, they put the pressure on themselves to be successful and to have a positive impact,” Leetch said. ”As much as there is outside pressure from media and the big city and fans, it’s really internal.”

AP Hockey Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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

Bruins’ veteran quintet could be key in latest Cup bid

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BOSTON (AP) — When the Boston Bruins take the ice against the St. Louis Blues, they will do it with a core group of veterans who know what it’s like to hoist the Stanley Cup – and have it slip from their fingers.

Patrice Bergeron can still remember the instant euphoria and accompanying adoration from across New England that came after the Bruins outlasted the Vancouver Canucks in seven games to win the Cup in 2011.

He just as easily recalls the emptiness in 2013 when the Bruins lost the final in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks.

”I think it makes you appreciate and makes you understand how hard it is to get to this point,” Bergeron said.

He is one of five current Bruins that were on both of those teams, along with Brad Marchand, Tuukka Rask, David Krejci and Zdeno Chara. Apart from Chara, who was 33 in 2011, Bergeron, Krejci, Marchand and Rask were all in their 20s during both runs. Defenseman Torey Krug was as a member of the ’13 team that came up short, arriving the season after Boston won it in 2011.

Nine years later Chara is now 42 and the 20-somethings are now grizzled NHL veterans as they prepare to take on the Blues.

It’s cast them all in the leadership role for another youthful and hungry Bruins team, built with many players about to experience this stage for the first time with Game 1 coming up Monday night.

It’s a position they have all willingly accepted.

Chara said this season has been a great teaching tool for them.

”It takes a lot to just get into the playoffs,” Chara said. ”We saw a lot of our games went to Game 7. First round. Second round. You have to realize how special it is to be in the final and what it takes. At the same time, you haven’t accomplished anything. You haven’t won anything.”

St. Louis coach Craig Berube knows the Bruins are deep and the veteran players are a key part of the team.

”Chara is still a good player, he’s a force out there, a big guy and he’s difficult to play against,” Berube said. ”Overall, their team’s a skilled and fast team and their goalie has played extremely well so far in the playoffs.”

Boston coach Bruce Cassidy, who is in his second season leading the B’s. He struggled in his first go-around as a head coach in Washington, going 47-47-9 over two seasons from 2002 to 2004.

The past two seasons in Boston, Cassidy said, he has gone from being apprehensive about speaking up around his best players to setting an agenda and then leaning on his veterans in the locker room to help implement it.

”I think this leadership group is second to none,” Cassidy said. ”I don’t know if I’ll ever have – wherever this career takes me – a group like this to work with. I said that since probably the second week of our job here. These guys are fantastic, and they sure make a coach’s job a lot easier.”

Though he has a reputation of letting his anger get the best of him at times, Marchand said he’s going into his third Cup final with Boston as even-keeled as ever.

”I think when you’re part of a team like that you expect it to last a long time,” he said. ”You don’t realize how one change in a team can really drastically affect how things play out. One player change. One injury. One call. You don’t realize what it takes to get back to the finals and how fortunate you are to get there.

”And so this time around I think I’m more appreciative of being here and at the same time more calm, I guess, in a way.”

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

Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower

NHL players’ favorite Stanley Cup memories as fans

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Not every player has photos of themselves as young fans in team-appropriate jammies like John Tavares with the Toronto Maple Leafs, so it can be fun and surprising to hear about their memories. Sometimes you’d be surprised to learn more about a players’ roots, and rooting interests.

In the fun video above, a variety of NHL players share some of their favorite Stanley Cup memories. You’ll see some expected moments, such as Brandon Dubinsky and Cam Atkinson recalling Mark Messier and the 1994 New York Rangers lifting that curse. The video also reminds us of how dominant the Colorado Avalanche were, as evidenced by a reminiscent Ryan Reaves. And, shield your eyes, Sabres fans, as a foot is, again, in the crease.

There are some other interesting touches. One mildly sad aspect is that Canadian NHL’ers P.K. Subban and Tyler Seguin point to a Doug Gilmour wraparound goal … even though it wasn’t associated with a Stanley Cup win.

You also might be intrigued to learn who mentioned Chris Pronger battling Dustin Byfuglien during the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, which player pointed to Teemu Selanne’s tearful Stanley Cup win, and some other moments. You may also notice a much younger Gary Bettman during certain moments.

It’s good stuff overall, so enjoy.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Bruins’ Chara cements towering legacy with Stanley Cup Final run

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

While Boston sports fans have been spoiled by a wave of championships across several leagues, you could make a similar argument for Boston Bruins fans when it comes to watching great defensemen.

Most obviously, they had Bobby Orr in all of his statue-worthy glory. People who were lucky enough to be alive to see his too-brief prime still often rank him as the greatest player – not just defenseman – to ever lace up the skates, and it’s not outrageous to have that debate.

Plenty of other names come to mind, with Ray Bourque enjoying a transcendent, high-scoring career in his own right.

It’s time to place Zdeno Chara‘s name in that select group.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

For such a tall player, it makes sense to consider the highest heights of his career, of which there have been many:

  • Chara has served as captain of the Bruins since 2006-07, becoming one of just three European-born captains to win a Stanley Cup when Boston won it all in 2010-11.
  • This marks the Bruins’ third trip to a Stanley Cup Final during Chara’s time, as they also came within two wins (and suffered through 17 wild seconds) of another championship when they fell to Chicago in 2012-13.
  • Chara won the 2008-09 Norris Trophy, and was a finalist on five other occasions. Personally, I believe that Chara should have won at least one other Norris during his splendid career.
  • Overall, Chara’s played in 1,485 regular season games, and an impressive 175 playoff contests.
  • While Chara probably would’ve won another Norris or two if he was a more prolific scorer, he’s a guy who’s been able to contribute offensively, too, collecting 10 seasons of 10+ goals, including 19 in 2008-09.

The numbers can get pretty mind-boggling with Chara, yet the story becomes even bigger (almost larger than life?) when you zoom out.

Sustained greatness

As tough as it’s always been to miss a 6-foot-9 fitness freak, there have been moments in his career where his brilliance was overlooked, or at least misjudged. Infamously, the New York Islanders traded away Chara before they really knew what they had, but the Ottawa Senators also let him walk in free agency, possibly choosing Wade Redden over Chara.

Betting against Chara was clearly a bad idea, but then again, it’s easy to forget just how much of an anomaly he truly is.

Alongside Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton, Chara’s managed astounding longevity, as he remains a key part of the Bruins even at age 42.

Sure, Chara isn’t playing almost half of every Bruins playoff game like he did during his gaudy peak, but he’s still important. It’s almost unthinkable that Chara is basically breaking even at five-on-five (via Natural Stat Trick), especially since he’s still called upon in tough situations, as he saw plenty of John Tavares and Mitch Marner during the Maple Leafs series, for example.

Tall tales

Chara isn’t just an impossibly huge defenseman who can still, somehow, keep up enough with young skaters that he remains a useful player for Boston to this day. He’s also someone who probably set expectations too high for plenty of players who’d come after him.

Would players like Tyler Myers, Rasmus Ristolainen, or even Colton Parayko have gotten the same looks in today’s NHL if Chara didn’t show teams that a huge defensemen could find ways to keep up, whether that meant leveraging an outrageous reach or the natural intimidation factor that comes with such size? In breaking the mold, Chara also set a high bar: just about any skyscraper-type prospect could be compared to Chara, especially since “The Big Z” is considered a late bloomer.

While others show that bigger guys can still play (Parayko, Dustin Byfuglien, and so on), there’s really only one Zdeno Chara.

When you think about it, in a less media-saturated age, Chara would probably inspire Paul Bunyan-like stories.

After all, this isn’t just a large dude, it’s also the player whose 108.8 mph slapshot may not be matched for years. He’s scaled mountains. Chara seems to project the typical “Aw, shucks” hockey attitude, yet it’s clear that his ambition separates himself from the rest, and elevates him to a special place among Bruins legends.

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While Chara can be a punishing presence, and maybe blurs the line from time to time, he doesn’t have the mean streak of another elite, gigantic defenseman like Chris Pronger. “Gentle giant” might be too much, but Chara rarely resembles the bully he easily could be. To an extent, his towering presence does the bullying for him.

***

The Bruins have enjoyed a strong run of goalies as Tim Thomas passed the torch to Tuukka Rask, but who knows how successful those goalies would have been without the combination of Chara and Patrice Bergeron?

Adding young players like Charlie McAvoy and David Pastrnak breathed new life into this Bruins’ core, but remarkably enough, Chara remains a huge part of that foundation, and not just literally.

This run cements a thought that probably already should have been present: Chara belongs on the short list of Bruins legends. Winning another Stanley Cup would only make it tougher to deny — and it would also tie Chara with a certain No. 4.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.