Avalanche vs. Blues 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round preview

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The Colorado Avalanche have, to this point, met all of the expectations that existed for them at the start of the 2020-21 season.

With a loaded roster led by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Cale Makar, and Nazem Kadri, the Avalanche were considered one of the league’s best teams and one of the most popular Stanley Cup picks. Then they went out and won the Presidents’ Trophy with the league’s best record and dominated in pretty much every phase of the game.

Offense, defense, special teams, and even excellent goaltending when Philipp Grubauer is in the lineup.

They are the real deal, and the team most of us expected them to be.

Their postseason run begins on Tuesday night with a First Round matchup against a St. Louis Blues that is still somewhat of a mystery this season.

Are they still a contender? Or are they starting to inch away from that elite status?

They are just two years removed from a championship with a lot of the same core still in place, including one of the game’s best all-around players in Ryan O'Reilly. But they have also not consistently played at that level over the past two years. Injuries really decimated them earlier in the year, and they are still dealing with a little bit of that going into the playoffs, as well as the departure of long-time captain Alex Pietrangelo.

After a miserable month of March (and most of April) that nearly knocked them out of the playoff race, the Blues did finish strong down the stretch with an 8-1-3 mark over their final 12 games to clinch their spot. Their reward is a First Round matchup against the league’s best team.

AVALANCHE VS. BLUES – series livestream link

Monday, May 17: Blues at Avalanche, 10 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Wednesday, May 19: Blues at Avalanche, 10:30 p.m. ET (CNBC)
Friday, May 21: Avalanche at Blues, 9:30 p.m. ET (USA Network)
Sunday, May 23: Avalanche at Blues TBD
*Tuesday, May 25: Blues at Avalanche TBD
*Thursday, May 27: Avalanche at Blues TBD
*Saturday, May 29: Blues at Avalanche TBD

Avalanche – Blues Storylines

Colorado’s defense is the real deal

The thing that makes the Avalanche so scary is not just the fact they have a trio of All-Stars on their top line and a dangerous group of secondary players behind them. It is not just the fact they have the best offense in the league that can be a matchup nightmare for any defense and any goalie.

What makes them so scary is that they also have a defense that can lock down any team in the league. And they are all young and either in the prime of their careers right now, or just entering the prime of their careers. Cale Makar and Sam Girard are legitimate Norris Trophy contenders this season, Devon Toews is not far behind, and Bowen Byram is a potential star in his own right. Add in players like Ryan Graves and Connor Timmins and the defense is loaded. During the regular season no team in the league was better at preventing shot attempts, shots on goal, and scoring chances, and no team was even close to them. They can beat you in any manner.

The Blues defense without Alex Pietrangelo

You have to go all the way back to 2008 to find the last time the Blues played a playoff game without having Pietrangelo on the roster. Their long-time captain and top defender left via free agency this past offseason to join the Vegas Golden Knights, leaving a pretty big void on the ice and in the locker room. They attempted to fill it by signing Torey Krug in free agency, and while Krug has been fine, he has not really been a difference-maker either.

The Blues are also not quite the same team defensively that they have been the past couple of years. They give up more shot attempts, more shots, more chances, and more goals. They finished the regular season 19th in goals against, making it the first time since 2010-11 that they have finished lower than 15th. It is only the second time since then that they have finished outside of the top-10.

Which Jordan Binnington will the Blues get?

Binnington’s career has been all over the map so far. He legitimately helped save their championship season in 2018-19 and was a crucial part of bringing St. Louis its first Stanley Cup.

He regressed a little during the regular season in year two, had a meltdown in the playoffs that year, and then has been a little of both in 2020-21. Despite that, the Blues still felt confident enough in him to give him a massive contract extension this season. He is obviously their guy, especially with no reliable backup behind him. But his play has been so hit-and-miss this season that it’s hard to know what to expect going into the series. Considering the overall regression of the Blues’ defense, combined with the fact Colorado’s offense is as good as it gets, the good version of Binnington showing up is going to be crucial.

Championship expectations for Colorado

The Avalanche have reached the point in their development as a team that they are going to be measured by how far they go in the playoffs and how close they get to a Stanley Cup.

Just making the playoffs will not be enough. Winning one round will not be seen as a success. They are now in the meaty part of their development window where the Stanley Cup pressure starts to mount and the target is going to be on them. They have been the most hyped team in the league from the start of the season, they finished with the league’s best record, they have All-Star talent all over the roster, and the front office has gone all in on trying to win it all right now.

One big question for Colorado: Will the goaltending hold out?

This is the big X-factor and maybe the only question mark for Colorado going into the playoffs. The forwards and defense are both great, but the health and success of Grubauer will probably determine how far the Avalanche are able to go. Overall, Grubauer has had a strong season and posted great numbers. But he missed a couple of weeks while on the COVID list and his performance has been a little more inconsistent in the second half. If he struggles, or would happen to get injured, the Avalanche do not have any reliable depth behind him. Anytime you have a team like the Avalanche that is stacked like this it always comes down to whether or not the goaltending can get the job done. That is the one position where a single player can significantly alter the course of a series and season. It is also the one position that you might look at in Colorado with a hint of concern.

One big question for St. Louis: What can the Blues expect from Vladimir Tarasenko?

Including last year’s postseason Tarasenko has played just 34 games over the past two years for the Blues.

Only 24 of those games have been this season, and only one of them has come since April 28. When he has played, he has not been the same dynamic player that he has been throughout his career. While the Blues have a very good roster, Tarasenko is one of the few players that can break a game open offensively when he is healthy and at his best. They could use a lot of that in this series against a Colorado team that should not have any trouble filling the net. Will Tarasenko be available at the start? And if he is, what can he give them?

Prediction: Avalanche in 5

The Avalanche simply look like a buzzsaw right now going into the playoffs. They have one of the league’s best lines, great scoring depth, the best defense in the league, they went 5-3-0 against the Blues during the regular season, and are 26-6-3 over their past 35 games. Just seems like it would be a pretty significant upset if the Blues matched that in a best-of-seven series right now.

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.

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    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

    Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

    Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

    “It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

    Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

    Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

    “Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

    The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

    “I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

    Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

    Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

    “On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

    The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

    “It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

    It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

    “(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

    Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

    “It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

    NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

    UP NEXT

    Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

    Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.