Erik Johnson

Top-line injuries to Blues and Avalanche shake up Central

Not long after the St. Louis Blues raised their Stanley Cup banner and the Colorado Avalanche got rolling on a season of high expectations each team has a significant obstacle to overcome.

The Blues will be without sniper Vladimir Tarasenko for five months, basically the rest of the regular season. The Avalanche – already missing injured winger Mikko Rantanen – ruled out captain Gabriel Landeskog indefinitely with a lower-body injury. Those injuries to top-line players on two Central Division powerhouses could shift the balance of power in the Western Conference for months.

”It shakes things up big time,” said retired forward Patrick Sharp, who spent 12+ of his 15 NHL seasons playing in the Central. ”It’s going to test the depth of these two teams.”

Tarasenko underwent right shoulder surgery Tuesday. The Russian winger scored 11 goals and added 15 assists on the Blues’ Cup run and is difficult to replace.

St. Louis will try to compensate but not by leaning too hard on playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly and fellow stars Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz. The onus is on the likes of Zach Sanford, Sammy Blais, Robert Thomas and Robby Fabbri to step up.

”Our team is built as the sum of all the parts,” general manager Doug Armstrong said. ”We’re going to have to have a strength in numbers (approach), and I believe that we can get it done.”

Sharp, who played 65 games against the Blues and watched their Cup triumph as an NBC Sports analyst, doesn’t doubt that. Because of Tarasenko’s production 5-on-5 and on the power play, he said losing him will test their offensive depth. He is looking specifically to Thomas to fill the void.

”The numbers didn’t really reflect the kind of playoffs that he had, but it seemed like every big game that the Blues had, Robert Thomas was one of the best forwards on the team,” Sharp said. ”If he can kind of recapture that playoff magic and show it in the next five, six months of the regular season, the Blues will be in good shape.”

Colorado opened the season 8-2-1 but will need to tread water until Rantanen and Landeskog return. First-line center Nathan MacKinnon is a one-man playmaker who no doubt benefits from having Rantanen and Landeskog and will have to be at his best – and try to stay healthy.

Much like the Blues, though, the Avalanche can’t put the pressure on one player.

”We have a significant amount of players that want more and feel like they’re playing real well,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. ”I’m hoping they strive in situations like this and prove that they can take on a bigger role. … Having everyone dig in and try to step up their game, and make up for the guys that are out of the lineup is an important piece to winning especially if you’re going to try and sustain it over the course of the season.”

Knowing Colorado couldn’t be a one-line team and contend for the Cup, GM Joe Sakic traded for Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky and signed Joonas Donskoi and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to bolster his forward depth.

”These injuries to top players, that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re talking about the landscape of an eight-month season for Colorado,” Sharp said. ”If they have aspirations of going deep in the playoffs, they’re going to need big contributions from everybody. So a little adversity at the start of the year doesn’t hurt anybody.”

It might help the Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars in the stacked Central Division. Predators center Matt Duchene on Tuesday night returned from a brief absence with a lower-body injury.

LANDESKOG X2

Colorado’s captain isn’t the only injured Landeskog. The horse by the same name was scratched from the upcoming $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

”Horse always comes first,” Avalanche defenseman and racehorse part-owner Erik Johnson tweeted. ”Bad day for Landeskog human and equine.”

Told of Landeskog’s human namesake also being hurt, trainer Doug O’Neill said, ”Maybe it’s twin pain.”

JOSI DOMINOES

Roman Josi‘s eight-year extension with the Predators worth $9.1 million a season will have a ripple effect on other top pending free agent defensemen like Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo and Boston’s Torey Krug.

Since all three were full-time NHL players beginning in 2013, Josi has 327 points and averaged 25:30 of ice time, Pietrangelo has 284 points and averaged 25:19 and Krug has 294 points and averaged 25:30.

”Every contract is relative when you’re talking about comparable players,” said agent Mark Guy, who represents Pietrangelo. ”Obviously whenever you go through and you sit down and negotiate with a team, players and teams have comparables that they shoot towards, and Josi and Alex are obviously in most people’s minds comparable players.”

Landeskog the hockey horse out of Breeders’ Cup Sprint

ARCADIA, Calif. — Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson won’t have a rooting interest in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

Landeskog, a 3-year-old gelding co-owned by Johnson, has been scratched from the six-furlong race because trainer Doug O’Neill wasn’t happy with how he trained Tuesday.

O’Neill says a nuclear scan and X-rays on Landeskog came back clean, but he still decided to pass on Saturday’s race.

O’Neill says Johnson and the other owners ”made it easy to do the right thing. They said the horse comes first.”

Landeskog was 12-1 on the morning line. He’s named after Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog.

NBC Sports this weekend presents 10.5 hours of live coverage of the 2019 Breeders’ Cup World Championships – the richest two days in horse racing – with $30 million in prize money at stake. Highlighting the coverage is the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic this Saturday, Nov. 2, live from Santa Anita at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

On Friday and Saturday, NBC Sports presents live coverage of 13 races at the 36th Breeders’ Cup World Championships on NBC and NBCSN.

Penguins remain hot with win vs. Avalanche

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Brandon Tanev notched a shorthanded goal in overtime to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel also scored as Pittsburgh recorded its fourth straight victory. Matt Murray added 26 saves.

Matt Calvert and Nathan MacKinnon found the back of the net for the Avalanche but their six-game point streak to open the season came to an end.

Crosby continues to dazzle

The Penguins captain has clearly moved on from a disappointing playoff run last year, which ended in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Islanders. Instead, Crosby is off to a tremendous start, recording points in each of Pittsburgh’s seven games and leading the club on the ice to a 5-2-0 record.

Crosby netted a highlight-reel backhander to tie the game late in the first period and then assisted on a Jake Guentzel tally in the second.

The superstar center craftily tipped the puck around Erik Johnson, played the puck with his glove, and then somehow had the wherewithal to outlast goaltender Philipp Grubauer until an opening appeared for him to slide a backhander into the net.

Early in the second period, Crosby intercepted a pass at the blueline, then set up Guentzel to help the Penguins grab a 2-1 lead.

While several notable players remain sidelined, Crosby will be expected to lead the Penguins on the ice, and continue to improve the players around him. Pittsburgh will need Crosby to play at the top of his game until reinforcements return over the next few weeks.

Avalanche upcoming free agents

After the Mikko Rantanen contract issue this past summer, the Avalanche have several pending RFA’s for next summer.

Colorado is expected to be a legit Stanley Cup Contender with a great mix of dynamic playmakers, infusion of youth and seasoned veterans capable of leading the way during turbulent stretches.

However, Bob McKenzie offered that general manager Joe Sakic wants to see how the first part of the season plays out before engaging in contract talks.

Andre Burakovsky, Tyson Jost and Nikita Zadorov headline the pending RFA class and all presumably have a role to fill moving forward.

Is Lafferty here to stay?

The Penguins have been bitten by the injury bug early and have been forced to rely on their organizational depth to stay afloat during a challenging stretch.

During their Stanley Cup-winning years, the Penguins have always been able to call up a role player to fill a specific need. Is Sam Lafferty the next player to seamlessly fit in?

Lafferty was close to making the team out of training camp according to Bob McKenzie, but fell victim to the numbers game of a roster. However, injuries to five impact forwards — Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust and Jared McCann — created a roster spot for him to slide in.

“We always felt like Sam was close coming into this training camp this year. But I think he has a whole lot more confidence in himself that he belongs here,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And that’s great for him, and that’s great for us.”

The 24-year-old originally from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, about two hours outside of Pittsburgh, Lafferty has taken advantage of the opportunity recording five points over the previous three games.

“He’s earned his playing time. He’s just playing terrific hockey,” Sullivan said. “He made a difference every game he’s been in. As a result, he’s getting more ice time. He’s a very good penalty-killer. I think he really understands his role and is taking pride in it. You can see it every shift. He’s gaining more confidence.”

The Penguins have done an excellent job in sliding players into appropriate roles, and Lafferty is just the latest example. Does the kid have what it takes to stick around for a full season and continue to make a difference? We will find out as the season goes on.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

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

Sidney Crosby bamboozles Avs with absurd backhand goal

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The Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Colorado Avalanche 3-2 in overtime on Wednesday, with hockey fans being treated to some Sidney Crosby vs. Nathan MacKinnon.

Now, with hockey, you don’t always get to see two superstars actually face off, as coaches sometimes avoid best-on-best matchups. Delightfully, we’ve seen Crosby vs. MacKinnon quite a bit through the early stages of Wednesday’s games, and both have managed to dazzle.

… Crosby’s won the first round, though. He set up some great chances with pinpoint passes to Dominik Simon and Jake Guentzel, but the Penguins couldn’t get on the board until Crosby took things into his own (back)hands. In a truly mind-blowing display of skill and timing, Crosby corralled a bouncing puck, beat Erik Johnson and Samuel Girard‘s pokecheck attempt, and then waited out Philipp Grubauer to score a highlight-reel goal.

MacKinnon, meanwhile, is off to tougher start. That’s mainly because of a debatable hit by Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist:

MacKinnon seemed shaken up by the hit, yet he didn’t appear to leave the Avs’ bench. Sometimes we see players realize that they were injured after the adrenaline of game action wears off, so this is a situation to watch. (Ed Olczyk mentioned that MacKinnon was “laboring” early in the second period.

On one hand, MacKinnon struggled at times …

On the other, he managed to score later in the game, so who knows if there will be lingering issues?

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Avalanche vs. Penguins livestream: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Colorado is the only perfect team remaining in the NHL. This marks the fourth time in franchise history that the Nordiques/Avs have opened a season at least 5-0-0.

The stars of these two teams, Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon, both hail from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. They both attended Shattuck St. Mary’s boarding school in Faribault, Minn. and both played junior in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before each being selected No. 1 overall. They maintain a great relationship off the ice, including training together in the offseason.

Beyond their explosive top line, Colorado also has benefitted from the development and emergence of young defensemen Cale Makar and Sam Girard. Makar turns 21 on Oct. 30th, and Girard doesn’t turn 22 until May. After showing a glimpse of their talent last postseason, they are off to strong starts in 2019-20.

Makar has at least one point in all five games so far (six pts. total). He’s the fifth defenseman in NHL history to start his regular season career with a five-game point streak. Marek Zidlicky (2003-04, Predators) is the only player from that group who has ever extended that streak six games.

Pittsburgh has won three straight games, and is coming off back-to-back seven-goal performances over the weekend. The Pens beat the Wild 7-4 on Saturday before beating the Jets 7-2 on Sunday. Sidney Crosby has scored at least one point in every game this season, including multi-point efforts in each of the past three contests. His 10 points leads the Pens. This is Crosby’s 950th game, and he is one goal away from 450 for his career.

[COVERAGE OF AVS-PENGUINS BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Colorado Avalanche at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 16, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Avalanche-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

AVALANCHE
Gabriel Landeskog – Nathan MacKinnon – Mikko Rantanen
Joonas DonskoiNazem KadriAndre Burakovsky
J.T. CompherTyson JostColin Wilson
Matt CalvertPierre-Edouard BellemareMatt Nieto

Cale Makar – Sam Girard
Erik JohnsonMark Barberio
Ryan GravesIan Cole

Starting goalie: Philipp Grubauer

PENGUINS
Jake Guentzel – Sidney Crosby – Brandon Tanev
Dominik KahunJared McCannPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerDominik Simon
Adam Johnson – Joseph Blandisi – Sam Lafferty
(Jared McCann is a game-time decision.)

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Jack Johnson -John Marino

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

MORE: Patience, preparation part of Makar’s NHL path

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Avs-Pens from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa. Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live with analysts Patrick Sharp, Jeremy Roenick and NHL insider Bob McKenzie.