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

Flames can’t keep putting Avs on power play

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To the naked eye, the Colorado Avalanche power play hasn’t been too special through three games against the Calgary Flames. After all, they’re only clicking at 12.5 percent. But keeping that power play off the ice might be the difference between the Flames advancing to the second round or going home early.

Anyone who follows hockey has to agree that the Flames are a deeper squad from top-to-bottom than the Avs. There’s no denying that. Calgary had five different players surpass the 70-point mark in 2018-19 including a defenseman, Mark Giordano. The Avalanche have the high-end talent to match, but their depth players simply aren’t as good.

By giving the Avs power play opportunities, the Flames are essentially preventing their best players from attacking, while giving Avs stars like Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen easy offensive ice time. That’s why Flames head coach Bill Peters has to figure out a way to make sure his team is disciplined and focused throughout Game 4 and beyond.

Let’s look back at Game 3. In all, they took 11 penalties (some were Game Misconducts that were tacked on when the game was out of reach). Calgary fell behind the eight-ball when they gave up a full two-minute five-on-three power play. Oscar Fantenberg took a hooking penalty on MacKinnon while Matthew Tkachuk took a too many men on the ice penalty at the same time.

After Mike Smith made a few good stops, MacKinnon eventually found the back of the net to give Colorado a 1-0 lead. Garnet Hathaway then went to the box for holding Nikita Zadorov, and the Avs forward scored his second power-play tally of the night. That was it. The Flames were done at that point.

“That’s obviously not even close to where we can be,” said Giordano, per the Calgary Sun. “We have to regroup here and stick together as a team but we know our compete level, No. 1, has to go way up. We have to be smarter with our decisions with the puck, our pinches, everything …

“Across the board, there wasn’t much good, honestly, throughout the night. We made that team look and feel good all night.”

Stopping MacKinnon at even-strength is already difficult enough. Giving him added time and space in the offensive zone is a mistake and they can’t keep doing it. The top team in the East, the Tampa Bay Lightning, have already been bounced from the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. If the best team in the West wants to avoid a similar fate, they’ll have to get back to playing to their strengths.

“Everyone has to give a little bit more. Everybody. Me included,” Smith said after Game 3. “We all have to give a little bit more. It’s hard to win this time of year, it’s hard. Everyone needs to play a little bit outside their comfort zone to do what it takes to win.”

Putting the odds in your favor by staying out of the box would definitely help.

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.

Avs’ Zadorov delivers ugly hit on Blues’ Maroon

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Avalanche – Blues is a game between two Central Division teams with significant stakes for both sides, so it isn’t too surprising to see some moments of nastiness.

Colorado defenseman Nikita Zadorov received a two-minute minor penalty for cross-checking St. Louis forward Patrick Maroon, and as you can see from the video above, it was pretty ugly. In fact, It wouldn’t be surprising if the league takes another look at it.

The Blues didn’t score on the ensuing power play, but St. Louis dominated the early proceedings nonetheless. They managed a 1-0 lead (with another would-be goal canceled out by an offside review), and kept Colorado from registering a shot on goal for most of the period. St. Louis ended up generating a lopsided 15-2 shots on goal advantage overall through the opening frame, so Colorado’s lucky to only be down by one goal.

The game is on NBCSN on Monday night, so see if Colorado can get something going against the smothering Blues.

[WATCH LIVE]

Here’s the overturned goal, by the way:

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: Blackhawks face Avalanche on NBCSN

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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.

The Avalanche head into Sunday in a solid position, as they hold a one-point lead and game in hand on the closest teams behind them vying for the West’s second wild-card spot. That rosy outlook can change in a big way if the Avs can’t beat the Blackhawks, though.

Looking at The Push for the Playoffs, things don’t look very good — at all — for Chicago, but this proud team likely isn’t waving the white flag on the 2018-19 season just yet. Beating the Avalanche (particularly in regulation) would certainly improve their odds of making an unlikely run, too.

With the stakes in mind – not to mention the star power in Nathan MacKinnon, Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Toews – this should be a fun one at the United Center.

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

What: Colorado Avalanche at Chicago Blackhawks
Where: United Center
When: Sunday, March 24, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Avs-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINES

AVALANCHE

Derick Brassard — Nathan MacKinnon — J.T. Compher

Colin WilsonCarl SoderbergAndrew Agozzino

Alexander KerfootTyson JostMatt Calvert

Gabriel BourqueSven Andrighetto

Samuel GirardErik Johnson

Ian ColeTyson Barrie

Nikita ZadorovPatrik Nemeth

Ryan Graves

Starting goalie: Philipp Grubauer

[More: check out this preview for Sunday’s game.]

BLACKHAWKS

Dylan Sikura — Jonathan Toews — Patrick Kane

Alex DeBrincatDylan StromeBrendan Perlini

Brandon SaadArtem AnisimovDominik Kahun

Chris KunitzDavid KampfMarcus Kruger

Duncan KeithBrent Seabrook

Carl DahlstromErik Gustafsson

Gustav ForslingConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Corey Crawford

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.

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.

Sabres’ Eichel, Flyers’ Voracek facing hearings after Saturday hits

Sportsnet
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The NHL’s Department of Player Safety will be busy on Sunday.

Forwards Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres and Jakub Voracek of the Philadelphia Flyers will be asked to explain their actions in their respective games on Saturday after two massive hits.

Eichel’s came in the second period of a 3-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. He and Carl Soderberg were chasing down a loss puck in the neutral zone when Eichel took his shoulder and laid it square into Soderberg’s chin, forcing the latter to leave the game temporarily.

Eichel was given a two-minute minor for an illegal check to the head on the play, which can be seen here around the one-minute mark:

Eichel had enough, he admitted after the game.

Nikita Zadorov drilled him in the first period (a hit you can see from the beginning of the above video) after an offside whistle had already been blown.

“He hits me after they (bleeping), excuse my language, blow the whistle,” Eichel told the Buffalo News following in the game. “That’s whatever.

“I thought he was just reaching. I don’t know. I’d have to look at it, to be honest with you. I’m trying to protect myself. It’s a physical game. I think he’s going to deliver a hit to me.

“It seems like they were taking runs a little bit at times. If I’m going to be at the forefront of it, I might as well push back a little bit. I’ve got to protect myself.”

Eichel has never been suspended.

Meanwhile, Voracek will have to answer for this bit of interference he threw on New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk in their game on Saturday.

In a 5-1 game for the Flyers, Boychuk was pinching in to try and snag a loose puck heading Voracek’s way. Instead, Voracek saw Boychuk coming and dropped him with hit, forcing Boychuk from the game and resulting in a five-minute major for interference.

You can be the judge here:

Voracek was far from pleased with the call following the game.

“The explanation I got was if I hit him in the head, it would be a game [misconduct],” he told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I don’t know why I got five. I try to protect myself, to be honest, maybe the puck was a little further than I thought — I thought the puck was close to me.

“It’s a tough hit. You know, he’s getting off the ice, he’s pointing at me like it’s a WrestleMania or something. Pointing at me like it’s a WrestleMania. Come on, it’s a hockey game. … He’s the guy that was sucker-punching 19-year-old Nolan Patrick last year in the end of a game. He’s going to do that? Give me a break.”

Voracek, like Eichel, has no history.


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