Erik Johnson

Blues Avalanche preview Grubauer
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NHL on NBCSN: Can Grubauer, Avalanche get on track vs. Blues?

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

About a month ago, a Blues – Avalanche game would present a battle for Central Division supremacy. As we’ve learned all too often in the turbulent NHL, a lot can change — fast.

The Blues took care of their end — and then some. While their eight-game winning streak ended on New Year’s Eve, they’re running away with the top spot in the Central and West. Their most relevant battles might instead be for the Presidents’ Trophy, and they’re rightfully perched among the league’s best during their impressive defense of that first-ever Stanley Cup championship.

Meanwhile, cracks are forming for the Avalanche.

Colorado on the edge of a crisis?

Despite injuries to Mikko Rantanen, Cale Makar, and Gabriel Landeskog, the Avalanche found ways to keep winning.

Lately, that train came to a screeching halt, even with such key players returning to action. The Avs ended 2019 with a thud, falling 7-4 to the Jets to slip to 1-4-1 over their last six games.

You can almost feel the Avs’ confidence fading.

“It feels like it’s hard to win right now,” Rantanen said following that loss to the Jets, via the Denver Post’s Mike Chambers. “We play good periods at times, but then we shoot ourselves in the leg. I think it’s in our minds. When it’s a tie game, or we’re up one or down one, we get scared that (a collapse) is going to happen again.”

That doesn’t sound like a resilient team. Really, a team that was snatching victory from defeat is now experiencing the opposite.

“We’re finding different ways to lose every night lately, and it’s frustrating,” Erik Johnson said, also via Chambers.

Goalie battle brewing?

Looking at win-loss records alone, you’d assume Philipp Grubauer has mainly been struggling recently. After all, he’s only managed a single victory since Dec. 4.

The larger truth might just be that the Avs aren’t propping Grubauer up the same way.

The deeper you drill into Grubauer’s stats, the clearer it is that he’s been just OK all season. Grubauer actually managed a better save percentage during his one-win December (.910) as he did in a 3-4-0 November (.903).

Overall, Grubauer sports a mediocre 10-9-3 record, and a middling-but-not-catastrophic .911 save percentage.

In a more anxious hockey market, you’d probably hear all about how a goalie battle should be brewing. Maybe that hypothetical nervous group of fans would have a point, too.

Pavel Francouz stepped in when Grubauer was hurt, and now it’s fair to wonder who will start each night.

Even after a tough loss to the Wild on Dec. 27, Francouz’s numbers sparkle. The 29-year-old is 11-3-1 with a splendid .927 save percentage. That tough night against Minnesota ended a four-game winning streak, and Francouz also saw the end of an impressive eight-game point streak (7-0-1).

Avalanche count on history repeating with Grubauer?

Looking at Francouz’s numbers, it’s fair to wonder why he received such scant opportunities during his career. The undrafted goalie managed strong (if not brilliant) numbers basically everywhere he went. One could validly argue that the Avs should let him run with these chances.

On the other hand, what if Grubauer repeats the narrative from last season.

Consider that Grubauer was putrid before the All-Star break last season (.891 save percentage over 21 games), only to catch on fire afterward (.948 in 16 games), closing it off with a strong playoff run.

It’s easy to see why the Avalanche weigh that experience — and, frankly, their larger financial commitment to Grubauer — more than Francouz’s superior recent play.

That said, it’s absolutely a situation to watch, and one the Avs can’t afford to ignore. The Blues won’t be shy about testing Colorado’s goalies, either.

John Forslund and Brian Boucher will call the action from Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.

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 Wild on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Friday’s matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The League returns from the Christmas break with 11 games on the schedule, including this Central Division matchup – the third of five regular-season meetings between the Wild and Avalanche. Each team has won at home against the other with the Avs winning, 4-2, on Oct. 5 (second game of the season for both clubs) and the Wild pulling out a 3-2 victory on Nov. 21.

Colorado, looking to return to the postseason for the third straight year, sit second in the Central, while Minnesota is in the thick of the Wild Card hunt – two points back of Calgary for the second position – and certainly not out of the race for a division spot, just three points behind Winnipeg. The Wild missed the playoffs a season ago after making six consecutive appearances from 2012-13 to 2017-18.

Nathan MacKinnon was voted an All-Star captain for the second straight season. Having another MVP caliber season (was the Hart Trophy runner-up two seasons ago), the No. 1 pick in 2013 has played in all 37 games this season and leads the Avs in most major statistical categories – goals (21), assists (34), points (55), shots (168), power-play goals (7), power-play points (20).

Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk missed over a month with a family issue, playing on Nov. 16 and then coming back on Dec. 19. He’s played in three games since his return (two starts). He allowed five goals at Arizona in a win in his first game back and then had the shutout against Calgary on Monday.

The consistent line of Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen is now fully healthy and the second line of Andre BurakovskyNazem KadriJoonas Donskoi, which is entirely new this season, has been just as productive a trio. After MacKinnon (21), it’s Burakovsky and Donskoi (13 each) and Kadri (12), who are tops on the team in goals this season.

[COVERAGE OF BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Minnesota Wild at Colorado Avalanche
WHERE: Pepsi Center
WHEN: Friday, Dec. 27, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Wild-Avs stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

WILD
Zach PariseEric StaalMats Zuccarello
Ryan DonatoJoel Eriksson EkKevin Fiala
Jordan GreenwayNico SturmLuke Kunin
Marcus FolignoVictor RaskRyan Hartman

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinCarson Soucy
Brad HuntMathew Dumba

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

AVALANCHE
Gabriel Landeskog – Nathan MacKinnon – Mikko Rantanen
Andre Burakovsky – Nazem Kadri – Joonas Donskoi
Matt NietoPierre-Edouard BellemareMatt Calvert
Tyson JostJ.T. CompherValeri Nichushkin

Cale MakarSam Girard
Nikita ZadorovRyan Graves
Ian ColeErik Johnson

Starting goalie: Pavel Francouz

Kathryn Tappen will host Friday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones. Chris Cuthbert will handle play-by-play duties alongside Pierre McGuire at Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.

Episode 2 of the three-part docuseries “Road To The NHL Winter Classic” will air on Friday, Dec. 27, at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The season finale will be presented on Monday, Jan. 6, at 10:30 p.m. ET immediately following Oilers-Maple Leafs on NBCSN. 

The series will chronicle the Stars and Predators as they prepare to meet outdoors in the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on January 1 at Cotton Bowl Stadium at 1 p.m. ET on NBC.

Maple Leafs’ Kerfoot suspended 2 games for boarding

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The NHL Department of Player Safety announced on Monday that Toronto Maple Leafs forward Alexander Kerfoot has been suspended two games for a boarding incident that happened on Saturday night against the Colorado Avalanche, Kerfoot’s former team.

Kerfoot was given a two-minute for boarding late in the second period when he hit Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson from behind and directly into the boards.

Here is video of the play as well as the NHL’s explanation for the suspension.

Kerfoot spent the first two years of his NHL career playing for the Avalanche and was traded to Toronto over the summer — along with defenseman Tyson Barriein the trade that sent Nazem Kadri to Colorado.

Saturday’s game was Kerfoot’s first game against his former team.

He will lose $37,634.40 in salary as a result of the suspension and miss the Maple Leafs’ upcoming games against the Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres. This is the first time he has been punished by the DoPS.

He will be eligible to return to the lineup on Nov. 30 when the Maple Leafs return home to host the Sabres.

In his first 22 games with the Maple Leafs this season Kerfoot has five goals and three assists.

This is the DoPS’ second suspension in as many days, following the four-game ban issued to St. Louis Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo for cross-checking.

Related: Blues’ Bortuzzo suspended four games for cross-checking

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.

Avalanche furious over referee decision to not stop play after Calvert injury

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Thanks to huge performances from Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar on Saturday night, the Colorado Avalanche were able to pick up a 5-4 overtime win in Vancouver to gain a little more ground on the first place St. Louis Blues in the Central Division.

Makar continued to look like an emerging superstar with four points, while MacKinnon looked like an MVP candidate with two goals, including a highlight reel coast-to-coast goal in overtime to win it.

One of the biggest reasons the game even made it to overtime was because of a late third period rally by the Canucks that saw them score two goals in the final three minutes. The manner in which the Canucks scored the first of those two goals left the Avalanche completely livid.

It all happened after forward Matt Calvert was struck in the side head by an Elias Pettersson shot from point-blank range and remained down on the ice, bleeding from his head. The on-ice officials allowed play to continue and it ultimately resulted in Alex Edler scoring to bring to the Canucks to within one.

You can the sequence in the video above.

Here is the rule that is relevant to why play was allowed to continue:

When a player is injured so that he cannot continue play or go to his bench, the play shall not be stopped until the injured player’s team has secured control of the puck. If the player’s team is in control of the puck at the time of injury, play shall be stopped immediately unless his team is in a scoring position.

In the case where it is obvious that a player has sustained a serious injury, the referee and/or linesman may stop the play immediately.

The Avalanche never regained position of the puck during that sequence so play was allowed to continue. The last part of the rule is what is most relevant to this situation because it brings up a very important question: If a player bleeding from their head isn’t enough to be considered a serious injury to immediately stop play, what is?

The Avalanche were understandably angry, with defenseman Erik Johnson having the harshest words, via The Athletic’s Ryan S. Clark.

“It’s a [expletive] joke. You want to protect a guy? Guy’s got a family at home, he’s laying there bleeding out of his head and you don’t blow the whistle? It’s a complete joke. An absolute joke. They should be ashamed of themselves.”

Said head coach Jared Bednar: “That’s the second time in two weeks a guy takes a puck to the face and is bleeding all over the ice. Sometimes it’s a tough call to make, but in that situation, you should’ve blown it dead.”

During an appearance on Sportsnet with Scott Oake after the game MacKinnon took it in a different direction and played the “What if it was LeBron James?” card.

“I can only imagine if that was LeBron James, his head was bleeding and they let the other team take a three-pointer to tie the game,” said MacKinnon. “I know it’s not the ref’s fault, it’s the league rule, but I think you need to look and who’s laying on the ice.”

The rule is what it is (and one that probably needs to be re-examined, especially if you are serious about player safety), but there is still that segment of it that does give the referees the option to stop play. That brings it back to the question mentioned above — what sort of injury is considered serious enough to warrant a whistle?

This is not the first time something like this has happened. During the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs the Pittsburgh Penguins scored a game-tying goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets after Zach Werenski was struck in the face by a puck and remained down on the ice bleeding. Play was not stopped, resulting in a Bryan Rust goal.

UPDATE:

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.

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.”