Avalanche moving on in playoffs for first time since 2008

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DENVER (AP) — The brief message on social media from Colorado defenseman Nikita Zadorov was rhetorical in nature: ”How is your bracket ?”

Because obviously, it’s pretty messy.

The eighth-seeded Avalanche certainly played a big role in that. Colorado knocked off the Calgary Flames – the top team in the West – in five games for its first playoff series win since 2008. It’s on to the second round, where Colorado faces the winner of the Vegas-San Jose series. The Golden Knights lead the Sharks 3-2.

While others may be surprised, Nathan MacKinnon and his teammates have been asserting that this postseason would be entirely different. This time, unlike a year ago, they wouldn’t be content with merely making the playoffs. This time, they wanted to make some noise even if they again entered as an eight seed and faced a No. 1 seed.

”We’re not just happy to be here,” said MacKinnon, whose team was eliminated in the opening round by top-seeded Nashville in six games last year. ”We’re here to win the Cup.”

Colorado actually has been in playoff mode for about a month, needing to go 8-0-2 down the stretch to earn the last spot. Despite the Avalanche’s surge, they weren’t exactly a trendy pick to spring an upset on a Flames squad that amassed 107 points. But they outscored the Flames by a 17-11 margin and outshot them 205-164.

”Now we can rest before the second round,” forward Mikko Rantanen said Friday after a 5-1 win in Game 5. ”That’s going to be huge.”

And just like that, another top seed exited. Tampa Bay, the Presidents’ Trophy winner with the league’s best record, got swept out of the playoffs by Columbus.

Dating to expansion in 1967-68, this marks the first time the top two teams in each division or conference or the teams with the two best records have been eliminated in the opening round, according to the league.

”We told you going into the playoffs that we had a different feeling, a different mindset this year, that we’re here for a purpose,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. ”Our guys believe it … Our guys are hungry for more.”

Rantanen turned in quite a series, with five goals and four assists. He has at least a point in four straight games, which is one away from tying the Colorado/Quebec franchise mark held set by Peter Stastny in 1982 and equaled by Peter Forsberg on three separate occasions.

This after Rantanen missed the last eight games of the regular season with an upper-body injury. He shook off some rust in Game 1 and then spent the rest of the series shaking free of defenders. He scored the overtime winner in Game 4.

”He came back and he looked amazing and dominated,” MacKinnon said. ”It’s so nice to have a guy like that on your team.”

The same can be said for goaltender Philipp Grubauer, whose play down the stretch got the Avalanche into the postseason and whose play now has kept them rolling. Grubauer posted a 1.90 goals-against average against the Flames.

”He was a wall for us,” said captain Gabriel Landeskog, whose team went 0-3 against San Jose during the regular season and 2-1 versus Vegas. ”He was really important for us. He’s been really solid this whole series.”

Grubauer believes this team can reach an even higher level.

”If we can manage to play that way for a long time, we’re going to set ourselves up for a good chance here,” said Grubauer, who won a Stanley Cup title with Washington last season. ”Guys are stepping up in the right moments.”

Like recently signed rookie defenseman Cale Makar , who made his NHL debut in Game 3 and scored a goal. The 20-year-old signed a three-year deal with Colorado last Sunday, a day after his college season ended when Massachusetts lost in the Frozen Four championship game.

Makar, who is from Calgary, grew up a big Flames fan. He just played a role in eliminating them.

Matt Nieto had two short-handed goals in the series, while Tyson Barrie added five assists and logged the most ice time among Colorado skaters.

In the clincher at Calgary, Rantanen, Colin Wilson, MacKinnon and Barrie all had at least three-point performances. This marked the first time in the team’s history that four players had at least three points in a series-clinching game.

That comes as no surprise to Landeskog.

”We wouldn’t be here,” Landeskog said, ”if it wasn’t for every single guy in this room.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Morning Skate: Flames need more from Gaudreau; Is Vigneault right choice for Flyers?

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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.

Here’s the NBC Sports Stanley Cup playoff update for April 17

• The NHL Awards will be back in Las Vegas this year. (NHL.com)

• The Toronto Maple Leafs have found a way to shut down the Boston Bruins’ top line. (Bruins Daily)

• The key to John Tavares getting the upper hand on Patrice Bergeron is taking short shifts. (TSN)

• The Calgary Flames need Johnny Gaudreau to step up if they’re going to beat the Colorado Avalanche. (Sportsnet)

Matt Nieto‘s speed has been a weapon for the Avalanche. (Mile High Hockey)

• The Hurricanes are fortunate that they have an extra day between Game 3 and 4 of their series against the Capitals. (Raleigh News & Observer)

• Don’t blame Alex Ovechkin for Andrei Svechnikov‘s injury, blame fighting in hockey. (NBC Sports Washington)

• The Dallas Stars’ shot selection was a problem in Game 3 against the Nashville Predators. (The Point Hockey)

• How did the Calgary Flames get so far ahead of the Edmonton Oilers? (Edmonton Journal)

• Did the Flyers make the right choice by hiring Alain Vigneault to be their head coach? (Broad Street Hockey)

• Travis Yost argues that William Karlsson could be a great option for the Buffalo Sabres. (Buffalo News)

• Finally, Men in Blazers sits down with Ovechkin to discuss achieving his career dream of winning the Stanley Cup and the celebrations that followed:

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.

Avalanche absolutely crush Flames in Game 3

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Are we sure that the top teams and bottom seeds of each conferences didn’t switch bodies before the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

The Colorado Avalanche now have a 2-1 series lead against the Calgary Flames, which isn’t as extreme as the Blue Jackets’ 3-0 edge on the shocked Lightning. Still, if you only watched the Avs and Flames in Colorado’s lopsided 6-2 win, you’d be convinced that the Avalanche are the dominant force.

While Flames goalie Mike Smith saw some of his playoff magic wear off hear, it’s not as if this was an even contest where Smith simply let his team down, which is how people imagined many Calgary losses would play out entering the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Instead, the Avalanche just bombarded the Flames, basically all night long.

Nathan MacKinnon carried over the adrenaline rush from scoring Game 2’s thrilling overtime-winner, scoring two goals and one assist, all in the first period in helping Colorado build an early 3-0 lead. His assist came on a memorable first-ever playoff goal for Cale Makar, who made a sensational debut.

The Avs rarely relented. Again, it’s fair to ask if the Flames should turn from Smith to David Rittich for Game 4, but they’d be kidding themselves if they thought that a goalie swap would heal all of the things that ail them. After all, it’s not Smith’s fault that Colorado generated a gaudy 56-29 shots on goal advantage, including a 16-9 third period where you’d expect Calgary to make better gains during “garbage time.”

The Avalanche kept the Flames on their heels with speed and skill, but also all-out effort. Gabriel Landeskog is just one of the Colorado players who helped Philipp Grubauer keep more pucks out of the net.

While MacKinnon and the Avs’ other biggest stars delivered in a thunderous way, the Flames’ biggest names are landing with a thud.

Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, and Mark Giordano all went pointless during Game 3. Gaudreau’s been limited to just an assist through his first three games during this Round 1 series.

The Flames boast the sort of depth that Gaudreau’s line doesn’t have to dominate, particularly when Tkachuk is clicking when “The 3M Line” is together. Yet, so far, the Avalanche’s top players are absolutely dominating this series, and Colorado’s depth players are getting it done. It’s one thing for Mikko Rantanen to get two points; it’s another when Ian Cole and Matt Nieto also enjoy two-point nights.

With Colorado boasting home-ice advantage in an unusual high-altitude environment, the Flames must push through the burning in their lungs to get back into this one. In approaching Game 4, they have a lot of questions to answer, and probably need to take a long, sobering look in the mirror.

Avalanche – Flames Game 4 takes place at the Pepsi Center at 10 p.m. ET on Wednesday (NBCSN; livestream)

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.

‘No easy shifts’ as first-round series get tight and nasty

It wasn’t long after celebrating Craig Smith‘s overtime goal that P.K. Subban zeroed in on the cold reality of Nashville’s playoff series against Dallas.

”There are no easy shifts out there, no easy games and no easy plays,” he said. ”It’s hand-to-hand combat out there.”

Subban and the Central Division-winning Predators needed to work overtime just to even things with the Stars at a game apiece, and the Colorado Avalanche got a sudden-death goal from Nathan MacKinnon to tie up their series against the Western Conference top-seeded Calgary Flames. In the East, the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals needed extra time to take a two games to none lead on the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Boston Bruins are going blow-for-blow with the Toronto Maple Leafs in series that’s all square and looking like it could be a classic.

”It’s nerve-racking, but it’s definitely fun,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said.

None of these first-round series are going to be easy – even for the Capitals, who will go into a madhouse Monday (7 p.m. EDT, CNBC) for the first Hurricanes home playoff game in a decade.

”Absolutely no quit in that team,” Washington coach Todd Reirden said Sunday about Carolina. ”They’re not going away.”

This isn’t a time of year for shrinking from challenges, and the Bruins showed in their Game 2 against the Maple Leafs that they’re not going anywhere. As the series shifts to Toronto, the Maple Leafs will be without center Nazem Kadri for at least Game 3 (7 p.m. EDT, NBCSN), who has an in-person hearing with the NHL’s department of player safety earlier in the day for cross-checking Jake DeBrusk in the face.

Kadri was suspended three playoff games for boarding Boston’s Tommy Wingels when these teams met in the first round a year ago and could be banned for the rest of this series, if not longer. It’s no surprise the tensions are high between the Bruins and Maple Leafs.

”Things were getting pretty amped up there towards the end of the game and a lot of emotions, and that’s what playoff hockey is all about,” Bruins agitator extraordinaire Brad Marchand said after Game 2. ”It’s going to happen on both sides. There’s going to be a lot of physicality the rest of the series.”

The Capitals will try to keep up the physicality against the small and quick Hurricanes, who have shown they can come back on Washington. Center Jordan Staal said, ”We’re right there,” and there’s no shortage of belief that they can make it a series.

”I don’t think we played our best game,” center Sebastian Aho said. ”It’s just trying to believe that when we play our best, we have a better chance to win.”

Stars-Predators is anyone’s series going into Game 3 Monday night in Dallas (9:30 p.m. EDT, NBCSN). Each of the first two games was decided by a goal, and players expect the low-scoring trend to continue as the series wears on.

”It’s not obviously open like the regular season,” Stars goaltender Ben Bishop said. ”Everybody finishes checks, everybody’s going 110 percent. It’s not going to be that up-and-down style that you’re used to.”

Bishop clearly isn’t watching Avalanche-Flames, which finally opened up in Game 2 after a shutout by Calgary’s Mike Smith in the series opener. Led by MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog and now-healthy Mikko Rantanen, Colorado looks like it can push the Flames with the series shifting to Denver for Game 3 (10 p.m. EDT, CNBC).

”We’ve always had the confidence in this room,” forward Matt Nieto said. ”Down late or running into a hot goalie, we know we can win games against this team. We’re thrilled to be going back 1-1 and get back in front of that Pepsi Center crowd and try to get a lead in the series.”

The Capitals know from their own experience in the first round last year that a 2-0 series lead doesn’t mean a whole lot. They came back from down 2-0 to beat Columbus on the way to winning the Cup and were pushed to seven games by Tampa Bay after leading the Eastern Conference final by that same margin.

They know better by now than to underestimate the Hurricanes.

”There’s a lot of desperation whether you’re down two or you’re starting the series, but there might be a little extra,” Washington winger T.J. Oshie said. ”feels good to be up 2-nothing, but I think we can still do a lot better job and we’re going to have to if we want to go get a win there.”

LATE ADDITIONS

The Avalanche could have top prospect Cale Makar in their lineup sooner than later after signing the 20-year-old defenseman to a three-year, entry-level contract Sunday. Makar, who won the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA player of the year, is fresh off a loss with UMass in the Frozen Four title game Saturday and could be a big boost for Colorado.

”It’s my job to make sure I’m putting him in a position to succeed,” Bednar said. ”I think he’s an elite talent and a real special player. So I have hopes he can come in and help us in this series.”

Colorado isn’t the only team adding a player with the playoffs underway. The Blue Jackets signed defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov to a two-year deal and the Vegas Golden Knights signed forward Nikita Gusev for the rest of the postseason after their seasons in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League ended.

”Vladislav is an outstanding defenseman who excels at both ends of the ice,” Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. ”He is big, strong and mobile and has enjoyed a successful career in the KHL and in international competition, including winning an Olympic gold medal last year. We are very excited about his future with the Columbus Blue Jackets.”

AP Sports Writers Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Pat Graham in Denver, Joedy McCreary in Raleigh and Jimmy Golen in Boston and The Canadian Press contributed to this report.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

WATCH LIVE: Sharks visit Avalanche on Wednesday Night Hockey

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.

The Sharks and Avalanche meet for the first time this season in a matchup of teams that would each be in the playoffs if the season ended today but enter the new year on very different paths. San Jose won nine of 15 games in December (9-4-2) including a 7-2-2 stretch in its last 11. Colorado, on the other hand, is mired in a five-game losing streak (0-3-2) and has lost nine of its last 11 games (2-6-3).

San Jose has been streaky over the last five weeks or so, losing four straight at the end of November into December followed by winning seven of eight and then losing three straight prior to Christmas before winning two in-a-row ahead of Monday’s loss.

Sharks captain Joe Pavelski leads the Sharks with 23 goals. The 34-year-old finished with 22 goals last season in a full 82 games. Pavelski picked a good time to be on a career pace (on track for 46 goals – career high is 41 from 2013-14), since he will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.

The Avs are led by their trio – what was known as the MGM line – of Landeskog, last year’s Hart Trophy runner-up in MacKinnon and rising star Rantanen. Like the team, the three of them have come a long way since Colorado’s disastrous 2016-17 season when they finished last in the NHL.

Rantanen ranks second in the NHL in points and MacKinnon sits third. Not since Evgeni Malkin (1st) and Sidney Crosby (3rd) in 2008-09 has a pair of teammates finished in the top three in scoring in the same season.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS 9:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: San Jose Sharks at Colorado Avalanche
Where: Pepsi Center
When: Wednesday, Jan. 2, 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Sharks-Avalanche stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SHARKS
Lukas RadilLogan CoutureTimo Meier
Marcus SorensenJoe Thornton – Joe Pavelski
Evander KaneTomas HertlJoonas Donskoi
Kevin LabancBarclay GoodrowMelker Karlsson

Marc-Edouard VlasicJustin Braun
Joakim RyanBrent Burns
Brenden DillonErik Karlsson

Starting goalie: Martin Jones

AVALANCHE
Tyson JostNathan MacKinnonMikko Rantanen
Gabriel LandeskogAlex KerfootJ.T. Compher
Matt NietoCarl SoderbergMatt Calvert
Gabriel Bourque – Sheldon Dries – Logan O’Connor

Sam GirardErik Johnson
Ian ColeTyson Barrie
Patrik Nemeth – Ryan Graves

Starting goaliePhilipp Grubauer

John Forslund (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Sharks-Avalanche from Pepsi Center.