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Surging Avalanche look to keep hold of playoff spot

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday night’s matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

No Gabriel Landeskog. No Mikko Rantanen. And, apparently, no problem for the Colorado Avalanche.

It seems kind of crazy that the Avalanche have strung together four straight wins and put themselves into the second wildcard in the Western Conference without two of the leading scorers. But it’s true.

Already without Landeskog because of an upper-body injury, the Avalanche compiled three Ws and then found a fourth on Saturday against the Blackhawks without Rantanen, who missed his first game of the season with his own UBI after a crushing hit earlier in the week. That’s a combined 64 goals and 157 points removed from the lineup and yet in the first game of a home-and-home, back-to-back mini-series with Chicago, the Avalanche produced a 4-2 courtesy of four different goal scorers.

Talk about stepping up at the right time.

The Avalanche have allowed just four goals across their current winning stretch thanks to Philipp Grubauer‘s play, which includes a .970 save percentage and a shutout in that span. And they’ve found scoring from the likes of Colin Wilson, who’s on a three-game point streak and Tyson Barrie, who has four goals in his past four games.

A win Saturday will keep Colorado in the playoff spot they’ve been chasing for a while now. The Arizona Coyotes, hot on their heels, are also in action on Sunday.

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

Two points, then, will be vital, especially when you look at what lies ahead.

The Avs will host the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday and then Arizona comes to town for what could be a pivotal game for both teams. Colorado then closes the regular season with games against St. Louis, Edmonton, Winnipeg and San Jose.

It’s a tough slog.

With the way this turtle derby has gone in the Western Conference, a loss along the line probably won’t sting that much. But there’s certainly an opportunity for a team like Colorado, who’ve found another gear, to take control of their own destiny.

Chicago, meanwhile, needs a win and then needs more wins and then needs all the help in the world if they want to qualify.

March started off so well for the Blackhawks after a five-game winning streak, but when you follow that up with three straight losses, it erases most of the good work. Chicago is six points back and a win would make things interesting, for sure.

A loss, however, likely ensures they’ll miss the playoffs for the second straight season. It’s kind of a shame, too. On Jan. 20, the Blackhawks were dead last in the NHL with 41 points. It would have been quite a story, after firing Joel Quenneville, to see them emerge from the rubble.

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Joe Micheletti (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from United Center in Chicago, Ill. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick.


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

MacKinnon, Grubauer leading Avs’ playoff charge

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Two weeks ago the Colorado Avalanche looked like they were done.

They were in 10th place in the Western Conference, four points out of a playoff spot, had lost four of their previous six games, and were just finding out that Gabriel Landeskog — their captain and one of their three best players — was going to be sidelined for the next four-to-six weeks.

Or in other words, most of the remaining schedule.

Given how top-heavy the Avalanche lineup has been this season with Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen carrying the bulk of the load offensively, plus how much the team had struggled over the previous few months following a white-hot start and where they were in the standings, it would have been easy to write them off entirely. No one would have blamed you if you did because in most seasons that would have probably been enough to sink them.

But this, again, is not most seasons in the Western Conference Wild Card race where nobody seems to want to claim the second spot.

Thanks to their 3-1 win over the Dallas Stars on Thursday night, their third win in a row and fourth in the past six, the Avalanche enter Friday back in a playoff position in the West, having jumped back over the Minnesota Wild and Arizona Coyotes in recent days. The Wild can move back ahead of them with a win in Washington Friday night, but the Avalanche will still have a game in hand.

[Playoff push: Wild can move back ahead on Friday night]

Overall, their situation still looks significantly better than it did just two weeks ago when they appeared to be finished.

Here is how they have done it and what still remains ahead of them. The remaining the road will not be an easy one to travel.

MacKinnon is still carrying the offense

As he has done for the past two years, MacKinnon is the engine that makes this machine run.

Overall, the numbers are just about as good as you can get in today’s NHL. He has already topped the 35-goal, 50-assist, 90-point mark for the second year in a row, and is also once again scoring at a 100-point pace over 82 games (he would have easily eclipsed the 100-point mark a year ago had he not missed eight games due to injury, and he has a darn good chance to actually do it this season given his current pace).

More recently, he has been quite literally the only forward providing any sort of consistent offense.

Since Landeskog went out of the lineup the Avalanche have only scored 15 goals in their six games. MacKinnon has scored or assisted on seven of them, while he has been on the ice for eight of them. The only forward on the team that has more than two points during this most recent stretch is Sven Andrighetto with three points. Even Rantanen only has two goals and no assists. Along with the production, MacKinnon has also been a 55 percent possession player and is averaging more than six(!) shots on goal per game. It is, quite literally, the Nathan MacKinnon show right now in Colorado when it comes to the offense.

But there is one other player that is helping him.

Philipp Grubauer is finally playing like the Avalanche hoped he would

If you are not going to have a great offense, you are going to need to keep the puck out of your own net to have any chance of winning.

The two ways to do that are with a suffocating defense, or with some outstanding goaltending (preferably both).

The Avalanche defense has not been particularly great in recent years, and still is not this season, which leaves a ton of pressure on their goalies to be great almost every night.

The Avalanche had high hopes for Grubauer when they acquired him over the summer and immediately signed him to a three-year, $10 million contract. Things did not get off to a great start for him this season as he struggled through his first 20 appearances.

Lately, though, he has finally started to play like the goalie the Avalanche were hoping he would be, and his recent contributions might be even more vital to the team’s climb back up the standings than MacKinnon’s.

He has started five of the Avalanche’s past six games and recorded a .974 save percentage during that stretch. That includes two shutouts, only one game allowing more than a single goal, zero games allowing more than two, and his 44-save effort on Thursday night against the Stars.

In his past nine appearances dating back to the end of February he has a .969 save percentage.

That level of goaltending is going to give you a chance to win a lot of hockey games. With him in net lately, the Avalanche have been able to do just that.

Head-to-head results change everything

It is not just that the Avalanche have won a few games over the past two weeks that has helped, it is also who they have beaten in some those games. There is no faster way to make up ground in the playoff race than to beat one of the teams you are chasing in regulation. Those are four-point swings in the standings, and the Avalanche have had two of them in the past two games by beating Minnesota earlier this week and then Dallas on Friday to close to within four points of the first Wild Card spot.

Those wins were huge, and they have three more massive games on the schedule coming up over the next week, including a back-to-back set with the Chicago Blackhawks this weekend.

The Blackhawks are currently four points back of the Avalanche in the standings (with a game in hand) and the results of those two games will go a long way toward determining how chaotic the playoff race remains down the stretch. Two Blackhawks wins in regulation bring them even with the Avalanche in the standings. Two regulation wins by the Avalanche would pretty much bury the Blackhawks’ chances. A clean split (no three-point games) leaves everybody right where they are.

Later in the week they play the Arizona Coyotes. Every single one of those games is going to be massive, especially when you look at the rest of their schedule around those games because it has the potential to be brutal.

Along with the three head-to-head games against Chicago (two) and Arizona, they also have to play a Vegas team that is dominating everybody it encounters right now, they have to go to St. Louis and San Jose, and then play Winnipeg at home. The only remaining game that is not against a playoff team or a team they are in direct competition with for a playoff spot is their April 2 game against Edmonton, which is the second half of a back-to-back after traveling to St. Louis.

The Avalanche deserve a lot of credit for bouncing back and playing their way back into playoff contention, but the road ahead is not going to be an easy one, and a lot of it might come down to how they handle those upcoming games against Chicago and Arizona. A lot can go right i those games … and a lot can go wrong very, very, very quickly if they can not capitalize on them.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Oilers need wingers; Isles lack center depth

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Henrik Lundqvist has had a major influence on young teammate Alexandar Georgiev. (NHL.com)

Darcy Kuemper has been huge for the Arizona Coyotes this season. (The Hockey News)

• If the Oilers want to get back to the playoffs, they’ll have to find a way to improve on the wings. (TSN)

• The Toronto Maple Leafs signed Nic Petan to a two-year extension. (NHL.com/MapleLeafs)

• Miami University has fired head coach Enrico Blasi after 20 years on the job. (Dayton Daily News)

• Avalanche forward Gabriel Landeskog received a letter from a young fan. The anti-bullying advocate went out of his way to leave a positive impression on this fan. (Yahoo)

• Sunday’s game between the Hurricanes and Canadiens will be the first NHL game will be called in the Plains Cree language. (CBC)

• The United Center will get an impressive new scoreboard and sound system next season. (NHL.com/Blackhawks)

• 2020 draft-eligible prospect Alexis Lafreniere isn’t interested in being compared to Sidney Crosby. (New York Times)

• Now that he’s back in the Bruins lineup, expect David Pastrnak to give the Maple Leafs nightmares. (WEEI)

• What’s Nikolay Goldobin‘s future in Vancouver? (Canucks Army)

• The injury to Valtteri Filppula has exposed the Islanders lack of depth at center. (New York Post)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Sabres’ rebuild is still going nowhere

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For about three weeks back in November the Buffalo Sabres had their fans fooled.

It was then that they went on an improbable 10-game win streak to record their best start in years and finally show some signs that their perpetual rebuild was going to produce a positive result.

This was going to be the year that all of the waiting, losing, and disappointment was going to be worth it.

Even if you were of the belief that the win streak was the product of some good luck and an unsustainable run of overtime/shootout and one-goal victories (which almost all of the wins were) it still seemed like they had done enough to give themselves a decent cushion to cover for whatever inevitable regression might follow.

The only thing that could undo it at that point was an epic failure on behalf of the entire team.

More than three months later it has become abundantly clear that the epic failure has happened. Given where the Sabres are coming from, should any of it be a surprise?

The whole thing was a mirage, a total fluke, and nothing more than a temporary and all too brief break from the miserable run of irrelevance that has plagued the Sabres organization for the better part of a decade.

The low point of the season probably came over the weekend when they played a Colorado Avalanche team that has been equally disappointing in the second half and was also playing without one of its best players in Gabriel Landeskog. In that game the Sabres put forth one of the sorriest efforts of the season by any team when they were outshot by a 43-18 margin in a 3-0 loss that was way more one-sided than the final score would have you believe. Keep in mind that with just under two minutes remaining in the game the shot clock had the Avalanche with a 42-12 advantage. It wasn’t until the Sabres pulled their goalie for an extra attacker in a last ditch effort to do something that they were able to register even the smallest threat of offense.

What is worse is that it is hard to see why there should be much hope for better results in the immediate future with this organization.

We have spent a lot of time this season (and rightfully so, I might add) marveling at the incompetence of the Edmonton Oilers to build a successful team around Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl (and it truly is stunning), but keep something in mind about the Oilers — they at least made the playoffs once so far with McDavid, won a playoff series, and were a Game 7 loss away from being in the Western Conference Final.

Sure, everything that has been sandwiched around that makes that one season look like an outlier, but the Sabres don’t even have that.

In a lot of ways this team is worse than the team that is widely regarded to be the most inept team in the league.

That is not good!

[Related: Sabres’ captain Eichel disagrees with two-game suspension]

You might counter that by arguing that the Oilers have more high-end talent with McDavid and Draisaitl, and were also starting from a better place with a boatload of literal No. 1 overall draft picks. That would be a fair point. Sort of. But it’s not like the Sabres haven’t had a run of great draft picks in recent years.

When the Sabres tore their organization to the ground back in 2013 the intent was to stock up on premium draft picks (hopefully one that would land them Connor McDavid), rebuild the organization around the type of impact talent you can find at the top of the draft, and go from there.

The lottery balls were not always in their favor, but they were still in a good position to load the organization with talent.

They have not picked lower than eighth in draft since 2012.

They have had two No. 2 overall picks and a No. 1 overall pick.

One of those No. 2 overall picks produced Jack Eichel, and while he may not be on McDavid’s level he is still a bonafide star and a player that should, by year four in the NHL, be the centerpiece of a playoff team.

The other one was used on Sam Reinhart, who was taken one spot ahead of Draisaitl.

The result of all of those top-10 picks and a full-scale rebuild is a team that is headed for its eight consecutive non-playoff season (and 10th in the past 12 years) and has not won a playoff series since 2007.

Things have been so bad this decade that if they maintain their current pace and reach 83 points it would be their best finish since 2012. Based on the current Eastern Conference playoff projections, that would keep them 12 points out of a Wild Card spot and 24 points behind the third place team in their own division.

Again, this is a team that two months into the season they had the best record in the league thanks in large part to that 10-game winning streak!

That is where the problems really start to show.

In the 58 games independent of that fluke run they playing at a 69 point pace over 82 games, which is just about on par with what every Sabres team has done over the past few years. And remember the context of that winning streak: Nothing about it was sustainable. Seven of those 10 games were won in overtime or a shootout, while nine of them were decided by a single goal. If even two or three of those games go in the other direction (which can easily happen when you rely on that many overtimes and shootouts) the season easily gets even worse.

And that is pretty much the point here. Six years into this process and the Sabres are on their third head coach (probably soon-to-be fourth), their second general manager, and are only marginally better than they were when the whole thing started. And that is after getting the franchise player, who has been just as good as advertised, that they so desperately needed to start the rebuild.

Once you get beyond Eichel, Reinhart, Jeff Skinner, and top pick Rasmus Dahlin the remainder of the roster is just so painfully bland that it is almost impossible to see where any short-term improvement can come from within, and that is before you consider the fact that Skinner is a free agent after this season. He very easily could — and probably should — test the open market this summer where he would probably the second-best player available. He could pick his team and name his price given the season he has had.

If he goes? Well … there is probably not another 40-goal winger that is a perfect fit alongside your franchise center that is going to be walking through that door.

For things to get dramatically better they need to keep Skinner. They need Dahlin to become a superstar (not just a good player, but an actual superstar on defense). They need Casey Mittelstadt to live up to the hype. They need Tage Thompson to just simply be passable or decent (and 12 points in 58 games isn’t passable) to make it look like the Ryan O'Reilly trade wasn’t a complete waste of everyone’s time.

Even if all of that happens — and when you are talking about multiple young players it almost never works out exactly as you plan or hope with all of them — they still probably need five or six more quality pieces just to get back to wild card contention, let alone catch up to the powerhouse teams at the top of the Atlantic Division.

It is almost as if they need a rebuild from the rebuild.

That is not where anybody in Buffalo hoped, or expected, this team to be when the whole thing started five years ago. The whole thing has been a failure.

More: PHT Power Rankings: Capitals playing like champs again

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Capitals playing like champs again

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The Washington Capitals didn’t make the biggest moves ahead of the NHL trade deadline, but they may have made the right moves.

Adding Nick Jensen and Carl Hagelin helped shore up what has been at times a shaky defensive team this season and has helped propel them back to the top of the Metropolitan Division with what is, as of Monday, a four-point lead over the New York Islanders.

They have not lost since the trade deadline, are on a seven-game winning streak, and have won nine of their past 10 games overall.

It is not just the winning that is encouraging for the Capitals this time of year that matters, it is also the way they are winning.

They are dominating.

In six games since the trade deadline the Capitals are rolling along with a 58.1 Corsi percentage (tops in the NHL), have controlled more than 56 percent of the scoring chances at even-strength (also tops in the NHL), and have outscored teams by a 24-10 margin. No, they have not really played a collection of the league’s strongest teams since then, but you can only play the team that is lined up across from you and if you are a true contender you are supposed to dominate the lower-tier teams. The Capitals have been doing all of that and more.

With the superstar talent they still have throughout the lineup playing the way it is (Alex Ovechkin might score 55 goals as a 33-year-old!), a goalie that is capable of getting hot and carrying the team at any time, and the necessary tweaks made at the trade deadline they are going to have a real shot to make another run at the Stanley Cup.

They make the top-four in this week’s PHT Power Rankings.

Where does everyone else fit?

To the rankings!

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Not even sure they have played their best hockey as of late and they are still 13-2-0 over their past 15 games entering the week. The numbers around this team, and their top player Nikita Kucherov, are just comical.

2. Boston Bruins — Depth was always a concern, and it seemed like it was going to be a big issue as even more injuries started to mount, but they just keep on winning, collecting points, and very quietly have the second best record in the NHL. Maybe Bruce Cassidy should be in that coach of the year discussion, too?

3. San Jose Sharks — Even without Erik Karlsson or above average goaltending they just keep on rolling. This is going to be a scary team if Martin Jones is even average for them in the playoffs.

[Related: Erik Karlsson expects to be ready for playoffs]

4. Washington Capitals — Do not count them out.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs — The NHL’s playoff format has been the same for several years now, and every year a couple of top-five teams meet in the first or second round and one of them gets sent home earlier than maybe they otherwise deserve. Is it ideal? No. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Has there been any kind of a huge push to change it? A little but, but nothing fierce enough to make it happen. But if Toronto gets bounced in the first round to Boston again? Oh man, you can be sure there will be a lot more noise about it.

6. Calgary Flames — The Sharks and the Flames might be the two best teams in the Western Conference and they might have the shakiest goaltending situation of any team that makes the playoffs.

7. Pittsburgh Penguins — Sidney Crosby has played his way back into the MVP discussion. He is probably not going to win it over Kucherov, but he should at least be a finalist with the way he has dominated this season. Especially over the past few weeks.

8. Winnipeg Jets — Been saying this for a while now, but the play on the ice does not seem to match the record. This team has more to offer.

9. New York Islanders — Everything about the way they have actually played this season has pointed to an eventual regression.  Not saying it is definitely happening now, but only four wins in their previous 10 games is not ideal, especially at this time of year.

10. Carolina Hurricanes — They are not even a lock to make the playoffs, but you have to love the way they are playing right now with a 22-7-1 record since Dec. 31. They are young, fast, fun, and could prove to be a real headache … if they get in.

11. St. Louis Blues — Jordan Binnington has been a season saver, but the injury situation is becoming worrisome, especially with Vladimir Tarasenko now sidelined.

12. Vegas Golden Knights — Mark Stone has been a huge addition but they will only go as far as Marc-Andre Fleury will allow them to go. His boom-or-bust season makes them a total wild card in the West.

[Related: Fleury’s boom-or-bust season makes Golden Knights total wild card]

13. Nashville Predators — As of Monday they have not won a game in regulation or overtime since Feb. 21. Their only three wins during that stretch all came in a shootout. Not exactly the sign of a team that is playing great, and kind of underwhelming (at least for now) after their big trade deadline additions.

14. Minnesota Wild — A truly bizarre season in Minnesota. It would be an amazing story if they ended up making the playoffs after going into a sellers mode at the trade deadline. Before their ugly loss to Florida over the weekend (the second half of a back-to-back) they had collected at least a point in eight consecutive games.

15. Arizona Coyotes — If this team ends up making the playoffs it might be enough for Rick Tocchet to take the Jack Adams Award away from Barry Trotz.

16. Dallas Stars — Ben Bishop is quietly putting together a pretty dominant season for the Stars with a .930 save percentage, good enough for second best in the league just behind Andrei Vasilevskiy.

17. Columbus Blue Jackets — I had high expectations for this team after the trade deadline but, as of now, things have not gone according to plan. At all. Their remaining schedule is also pretty tough with a couple of sets of back-to-backs, three games against Boston and then two more against the Predators.

18. Montreal Canadiens — The Canadiens have had some brutal late-season collapses in recent years, and with only five wins in their past 14 games it is worth wondering if it might be happening again.

19. Philadelphia Flyers — Their record under Scott Gordon has been good, but I’m not sure how much that has to do with him and how much of it has to do with the goaltending situation finally getting secured with Carter Hart.

[Related: Has Scott Gordon done enough to keep Flyers’ Job?]

20. Colorado Avalanche — Losing Gabriel Landeskog might be the breaking point for a team that has badly faded after a great start to the season.

21. Buffalo Sabres — I know you can’t just take away a 10-game winning streak, but that streak was always a fluke and their entire season outside of that has simply been more of the same old Sabres.

22. Chicago Blackhawks — They still have the forwards to compete, but the defense is as bad as we have seen in the NHL in more than a decade.

23. Edmonton Oilers — They did win four games in a row, but three of those wins came against Ottawa, Buffalo, and Vancouver. They are in the process of not only wasting what will probably be a 110-point season from Connor McDavid, but what might be a 50-goal season from Leon Draisaitl. Truly stunning numbers.

24. Anaheim Ducks — Hopefully getting a chance to see his team from behind the bench will tell Bob Murray just how mediocre the whole thing has become and get him to make the necessary changes this summer.

25. Florida Panthers — They have had 22 games (pretty much one third of their schedule) go to overtime or a shootout this season, which is just an insane number. That is really no way to be a competitive team on a consistent basis with so many of your games basically coming down to a coin flip.

26. New York Rangers — They only have two wins since Feb. 20, both of them coming against a Devils team that can barely put a full roster on the ice right now.

27. Vancouver Canucks — Remember when the Canucks seemed to be “ahead of schedule” in their rebuild? They might win 33 or 34 games this season instead of the 30 or 31 they have been winning the past few years, and they still have the fewest wins in the NHL since the start of the 2015-16 season (excluding Vegas, who is only in its second season). Even worse, they are once again in a position where their odds of landing the top pick in the draft are not all that high.

28. New Jersey Devils — Injuries and trades have just decimated this roster to the point where it barely resembles an NHL team right now.

29. Detroit Red Wings — Probably the best thing that has happened over the past few weeks is getting their first glimpse at first-round draft pick Filip Zadina, who scored his first NHL goal. His development will play a big role in where this rebuild goes.

30. Los Angeles Kings — There can be no shortcuts or quick fixes here, they need a massive overhaul this offseason because this roster as currently constructed does not really have anything going for it.

31. Ottawa Senators — All of this losing is a big win for the Avalanche, who own their 2019 first-round draft pick.

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.