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Colorado Collapse: What’s eating the Avalanche?

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Typically, the U.S. Thanksgiving break serves as a solid benchmark in the NHL for which teams will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

For this year’s Colorado Avalanche, a peek at the standings on the final day of November would prove that Colorado was tied with Nashville in points atop the Central Division. But since Dec. 1, the Avalanche are 7-15-3 (17 points), which is the worst mark in the league. Here in early February, they’re on the outside looking in, two points back of Vancouver in the Western Conference wild card race, after the Canucks defeated them 5-1 on Saturday.

Here’s a deeper look at how the Avalanche problems have (ahem) snowballed:

Top Heavy

Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen make up arguably the best line in the game. Entering Colorado’s matchup with Vancouver over the weekend, the trio had combined for 199 points (79 goals, 120 assists) after all three had been named All-Stars. But head coach Jared Bednar split them up for the Canucks game, looking to spread a bit of the wealth. Alexander Kerfoot started on the top line in Landeskog’s spot along with MacKinnon and Colin Wilson, while the Avalanche captain played left wing on the second line with Carl Soderberg at center and Rantanen on right wing. It lasted less than 20 minutes, as Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen were reunited by the end of the first period after Colorado had fallen behind 2-0.

Since the start of December, Landeskog (26 points), MacKinnon (30) and Rantanen (31) have combined for 87 points. During that span, all other Colorado forwards have combined for 69 points. Outside of the big three and Soderberg – who has a career-best 17 goals this season – the Avs have struggled to produce up front. That lack of depth will make it difficult for them to turn things around and make a playoff push.

Power Play

Through Nov. 30, the Avalanche had the best power play in the league, with the man advantage clicking at a whopping 31.4 percent, or 27-for-86 in 26 games. In the following 25 games since Dec. 1, Colorado has 20 power play goals, despite 18 more power play opportunities (20-for-104). While it is unreasonable to expect that the Avs would have continued their torrid pace from earlier in the year, the dip in production on the man advantage helps explain why Colorado’s overall goals per game has slid from 3.73 through November (tied for best in the league with Tampa Bay) to 2.92 since.

Goalie Struggles

Colorado has allowed three or more goals 33 times in 51 games, so defensive structure has certainly been an issue this season. Still, the Avalanche has also failed to get big saves from either of their goaltenders. Since early December, Semyon Varlamov is 4-8-2 with an .875 save percentage and 3.54 goals against average. That save percentage is the worst among all netminders who have played at least 10 games in that span.

Philipp Grubauer – who was signed during the off-season to a three-year, $10 million deal – hasn’t been any better with a 3-5-1 record, an .878 save percentage and 3.68 goals against average during that same stretch.

After regulation

Get this, the Avs are 1-7 in overtime this season and 0-1 in shootouts. Those are precious points they’ve left on the table in a conference with playoff spots ripe for the taking.

If all of that wasn’t enough, Stan Kroenke, the owner of the Avalanche, also owns the Los Angeles Rams. On the bright side, if the Avs get just three points, they’d be back in the playoffs.

Avalanche search for answers during slump

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Asking just a few top players to carry you through an 82-game season might make sense to, say, the CEO of the Dallas Stars, but such a strategy rarely works out over the long haul in the NHL.

Even so, for much of 2018-19, the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog seemed like they might just carry the Colorado Avalanche to greatness, or some place close to that.

At one point, the Avs were hot enough to be in the running for the Central Division crown, firing off to a 15-6-4 start by late November. Heading into Wednesday’s game against the Sharks, they’re now in a soul-searching period, as a five-game losing streak pushed them to 19-13-8, good for third in the Central.

Let’s ponder some of the questions Colorado is facing as they get ready to host the Sharks on Wednesday.

[Sharks – Avs preview]

Loading up versus finding balance

Amid these struggles, the Avalanche have chosen to break up that vaunted top line, at least briefly.

Tyson Jost now finds himself with MacKinnon and Rantanen, while Landeskog slides to the second line with Alexander Kerfoot and J.T. Compher.

The ideal scenario would be that such splendid linemates might unlock Jost’s potential as the 10th pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, while Landeskog could conceivably give a so-so second-line a big boost of skill and snarl.

Most realistically, this tweak provides another test run in the debate about loading up a top line versus spreading the wealth.

Speaking of wealth, it actually brings some alternate experimentation to mind: would the Avalanche be wiser to see how Rantanen and MacKinnon might operate running their own lines?

Beyond potentially giving Colorado greater balance, they’d maybe get a better idea of Rantanen’s true value. The 22-year-old will see his rookie contract expire after this season, and while a big payday is basically inevitable, the Avs might want to know a little bit more about what Rantanen can accomplish on his own.

Consider that, since his breakthrough 2017-18 season, Rantanen’s lined up for more than 1,500 even-strength minutes with MacKinnon, and only about 150 without him, via Natural Stat Trick. His ice time is nearly the same with Landeskog, and those trends carry over to the power play, too.

None of this is to say that Rantanen owes his production to MacKinnon. It’s most likely akin to Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin: two dangerous scorers who become even more dangerous together.

It behooves the Avalanche to get a better idea of their optimal lineup options. Would Landeskog work better with Rantanen or MacKinnon, or totally separate? Is it better just to load up? Would having the last change make a difference in home versus away situations?

A bad cold streak is tough to spin, yet if they gather some useful intel, there could be quite the upside. Especially if they get an impact player from the 2019 NHL Draft thanks to Ottawa’s pick, thus opening the door for even greater things.

(Sorry, Senators fans.)

Questions in net

Heading into 2018-19, signs pointed to (traded for and extended) goalie Philipp Grubauer transitioning to a starting job, while Semyon Varlamov and his expiring deal being phased out. Instead, Grubauer has struggled, while Varlamov’s snared a greater share of the starts (25 to 15).

Varlamov is injured, so Grubauer gets a chance to get back on track against the Sharks on Wednesday.

There are worse goalie situations around the NHL, but Colorado’s remains hazy.

Somewhere in between

It’s possible that the Avalanche were playing over their heads, and gravity is starting to take over.

By many measures, they’ve been a bottom-third team from a possession standpoint, but they haven’t really been under water to a totally disastrous level. In a way, it’s fitting that their PDO is an even 1.00, basically the indicator of flat-average luck. At the moment, they might simply fall into the middle of the pack, and finding better balance really could be crucial.

Beyond all that, this is a young team, with its best players in their prime years. Those fresh legs could pay off, particularly at high elevation, and those young players could pay greater dividends as they learn the ropes and become more confident.

Getting things going early in 2019 could be a great help, by the way. After two home games including Wednesday’s match with the Sharks, the Avalanche will face a five-game road trip.

While failing to get back on track could make for a damaging stretch, the Avalanche could learn a lot about themselves as they try to earn a second straight playoff berth.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

WATCH LIVE: Avalanche host Penguins on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Colorado Avalanche at 9:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

Two teams tangling to keep the good times rolling?

Sounds like a recipe for an exciting game. And then you read the ingredients.

Malkin. Crosby. MacKinnon. Rantanen.

It all adds up to what should be an entertaining affair for two teams playing the second half of respective back to backs.

[WATCH LIVE – 9:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

The Colorado Avalanche put their five-game winning streak on the line against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who came from behind on Tuesday night three times against the Winnipeg Jets and squeaked out a 4-3 win.

The travel is brutal from Winnipeg to Denver, but the Penguins are 3-0-1 in their past four games and seem to finally be gelling as a team for the time being.

The Avs have been a scoring machine with 22 goals for in during their respective streak while taking care of business at the other end of the rink with just 11 goals against in that span. Colorado is also coming off a big 3-2 win against the might Nashville Predators on Tuesday.

Colorado’s defensive prowess will be put to the test if Pittsburgh’s recent trend of goal scoring continues. The Pens have four goals or more in five of their past six games. It helps that Sid is leading that charge with four goals and 11 points in his past seven games.

Colorado counters with fellow Cole Harbour native Nathan MacKinnon. Best buds off the ice (and on Tim Hortons commercials) Crosby will be out to shut down MacKinnon and his five-game point streak.

[Read more about this game in this extended preview]

What: Pittsburgh Penguins at Colorado Avalanche
Where: Pepsi Center
When: Wednesday, November 28th, 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blues-Red Wings stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINES

PENGUINS

Jake GuentzelSidney CrosbyBryan Rust

Tanner PearsonEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel

Zach Aston-ReeseDerick BrassardDaniel Sprong

Garrett Wilson — Riley SheahanDerek Grant

Brian DumoulinKris Letang

Jack JohnsonJamie Oleksiak

Olli MaattaJuuso Riikola

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

AVALANCHE

Gabriel Landeskog — Nathan MacKinnon — Mikko Rantanen

Tyson JostAlexander KerfootColin Wilson

Matt NietoCarl SoderbergMatt Calvert

Sven AndrighettoJ.T. CompherGabriel Bourque

Samuel GirardErik Johnson

Ian ColeNikita Zadorov

Patrik NemethMark Barberio

Starting goalie: Philipp Grubauer

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

How worried should Avs be about five-game skid?

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The biggest story of the Winnipeg Jets’ 5-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche was the dominant play of Blake Wheeler, who generated a career-high five points. (Stay tuned for more on Wheeler in tonight’s Buzzer.)

Five was a sobering number for the Avalanche beyond Wheeler’s tremendous game, though. With this loss, the Avalanche have now dropped five straight defeats, slipping to 7-6-3.

Once again, it seems like the Avalanche are mirroring their Eastern Conference cousins (and long-ago Stanley Cup Final opponents) in the New Jersey Devils.

Both teams rode MVP-quality performances from Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon, managing to shock the hockey world with appearances in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Each squad were expected to come back down to reality in 2018-19, yet stormed off to strong starts. And now it seems like gravity is pulling each team down.

[Read up about New Jersey’s tough stretch here.]

Perhaps taking a deeper look at the Avalanche’s season will give us sense of how worried they should be.

The top line and everyone else

While the deadly trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog failed to generate a point in Friday’s loss to the Jets, this bumpy stretch isn’t on them. Granted, Wheeler did accomplish the rare task of making MacKinnon look silly in collecting his 400th assist:

Regardless, it’s telling that there are only two other skaters who are in the double digits in points (Tyson Barrie with 12, Alexander Kerfoot with 11), and Barrie is a defenseman who is frequently on the ice with that big three.

Breaking up that top line might be too much to ask of Jared Bednar, but one way or another, the Avalanche could really use more secondary scoring.

Goalies becoming human

The Avalanche’s hot start didn’t just come down to that outrageous first line.

Semyon Varlamov began his contract year on a tear, only allowing 13 goals during eight October appearances, sporting an elite .950 save percentage. While Varlamov made some tough stops before ultimately succumbing to the Jets’ deadly attack on Friday, allowing four goals against Winnipeg means that he’s given up 13 goals in three November contests, the same total he yielded during that unsustainable start.

Speaking of unsustainable, quite a few numbers seemed to indicate that the Avalanche were due for regression. Heading into this loss, Natural Stat Trick listed Colorado’s 9.6 shooting percentage at even-strength as the sixth-highest in the NHL, while their PDO (a stat that’s helpful shorthand for luck) ranking fifth at 1.021.

Calming context

To be fair to the Avalanche, they haven’t been getting routed in the same way that the Devils have.

Even Friday’s 5-2 loss was close at times, as Colorado decreased Winnipeg’s leads to 2-1 and 3-2 in the third period before the Jets pulled away.

Four of this young team’s five consecutive losses have come on the road, and the Avalanche have played eight of their last 11 games away from home. Their opponents haven’t been cupcakes, either. While the Flames and Wild have talent but have been hit-or-miss, Colorado fell to a surprisingly feisty Canucks squad, lost to the red-hot Predators, and then those imposing Jets.

A harsher critic would wave away all of those details as mere excuses, and it’s not such a tough schedule that the Avs deserve a free pass. Nonetheless, it provides some context and solidifies the notion that Colorado shouldn’t get too bent out of shape about this stretch.

***

Long story short, the Avalanche weren’t as strong as their 6-1-2 start indicated, nor are they as rudderless as a five-game losing streak might imply.

The truth is somewhere in the middle, and that should be fine for a very young, fast team that played way beyond expectations last season (not to mention a franchise that owns the Ottawa Senators’ potentially lucrative 2019 first-round pick).

Now, will the Avalanche be competitive enough to earn a playoff spot despite playing in the loaded Central Division and the unfriendly West? Check back after a few more cold and hot streaks.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Sissons’ hat trick, coach’s challenges lift Predators to another win

A Colton Sissons hat trick and two successful coach’s challenges were the difference for the Nashville Predators on Wednesday night as they picked up a 4-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche, winning their fourth game in a row and improving to a league-best 12-3-0 to start the season.

Sissons was the offensive star for the Predators as he not only ended what had been a 13-game goal drought, but recorded the second regular season hat trick of his career.

Ryan Hartman added an empty net goal in the final minutes to help put the game away for the Predators.

While the final score ended up looking a little lopsided, this game could have been a lot closer had it not been for the NHL’s replay system that allowed Nashville to challenge two potential Colorado goals that were ultimately overturned.

Early in the second period Ian Cole thought he scored what would have been his second goal of the season only to have it overturned after replay showed that the puck had barely exited the zone as defender Samuel Girard tried to keep it in.

In the third period, and with the Predators leading 3-1, Colin Wilson thought he scored against his former team to cut the deficit to a single goal, only to again have the Predators challenge for offsides and again have the call overturned.

Avalanche forward Alexander Kerfoot was offside as Cole attempted to dump the puck in to the zone on the rush.

The two challenges by Nashville were bold calls by the coaching staff because had they not been overturned they would have not only given up the goal, but also been assessed a delay of game penalty for the failed offside challenge. Either way they were potential game-changing calls, and they both just so happened to go the Predators’ way.

When the Avalanche weren’t having goals overturned by review, Predators goalie Pekka Rinne was playing another spectacular game by turning aside 24 of the 25 shots he faced. In his first eight appearances in 2018-19 the reigning Vezina Trophy winner has a .948 save percentage on the season.

After a great start that saw the Avalanche go 6-1-2 in their first nine games they have now lost five of their past six games and each of the past four.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.