Nikita Zadorov

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.

Canadiens’ Kotkaniemi leaves game after scary fall (Video)

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Scary scene in Montreal on Thursday night during the first period of the Canadiens’ game against the Colorado Avalanche.

Second-year forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi had to leave the game after an ugly fall that resulted in him hitting his head off the ice. He remained on the ice for a few moments before being helped off the ice by teammates with his head slumped over.

The Canadiens announced that he was out for the remainder of the game due to an “upper-body injury.”

You can see the sequence in the video above.

It all happened after Kotkaniemi was pinned against the boards by Nikita Zadorov, and then fell backwards. There are a lot of problems with Zadorov’s hit, including the fact it looked to be very late (the puck was long gone from Kotkaniemi when Zadorov initiated the hit) as well as the fact he appeared to lift his right leg and swing into the back of Kotkaniemi’s, knocking him backwards. That doesn’t really qualify as a slew-foot, but everything about the play itself seemed unnecessary.

There was no penalty called on the play.

The Canadiens are already playing without two key forwards in Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron.

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.

Bolt from the blueline: Avs rookie Makar off to flying start

DENVER — Cale Makar is on the move these days – into his own place and into hallowed hockey territory. He’s just getting settled in, too.

The Colorado Avalanche rookie became only the fourth defenseman in NHL history to record 18 points through his first 18 career regular-season games. His teammates maintain that’s due to his ability to see the ice with a veteran’s vision and rarely making the same mistake twice.

His own appraisal is much more subdued.

”I still feel like a rookie,” said Makar, who moved out of teammate Matt Calvert‘s house this year to achieve another level of independence. ”I still have lots to learn.”

Those are precisely the words fellow defenseman Ian Cole wants to hear from the 21-year-old who was drafted with the fourth overall pick in 2017 and received his first taste of NHL action last spring in the playoffs.

”But what’s he going to say? ‘Man, am I good!”’ Cole cracked.

The numbers and early accolades do tend to suggest that, though. Makar was named the third star by the league for the week ending Nov. 10.

On Tuesday night, he scored his fifth goal of the season in a 4-0 win at Winnipeg. It was a game in which goaltender Adam Werner stepped in after starter Pavel Francouz was hurt after 31 seconds. All Werner did was turn in a 40-save shutout in his unexpected NHL debut.

It could be another injury for the Avalanche to weather in what’s already been a banged-up season. They’re currently without captain Gabriel Landeskog, forward Mikko Rantanen, goaltender Philipp Grubauer, forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and defenseman Nikita Zadorov.

”It’s tough,” said Makar, who has 13 assists this season. ”At the end of the day, we have so much depth.”

Makar has given Colorado a big scoring boost.

A notable stat: The last rookie defenseman with more points than Makar through their first 18 regular-season games was Hall of Famer Larry Murphy, who had 19 for Los Angeles in 1980-81. The two other NHL blueliners with more points through 18 games were Hall of Famers Hap Day (21 points with the Toronto St. Patricks in 1924-25) and Harry Cameron (20 with the Toronto Arenas in 1917-18), according to research from NHL Stats.

Another noteworthy stat: Makar’s nine assists in October set an Avalanche record for a rookie defenseman in a month.

And another: His five straight games with at least a point to kick off the season matched the Avalanche record (since 1995-96) for the longest stretch to begin a career.

”He’s a guy that’s just so naturally talented,” Cole said. ”His maturity level is well beyond his years. He’s very analytical in the sense that when he sees something, we can talk through something and you can almost see him learning. He can catalog that.

”If I’m right in that assessment, he’s going to be very, very good very quickly and for a very long time.”

Last April, Makar signed an entry contract with Colorado after his Frozen Four run with UMass came to an end (he won the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top NCAA hockey player).

His first contest in an Avs sweater was Game 3 against the Western Conference’s top seed, Calgary. He made an immediate impact by becoming the first defenseman in league history to score a goal while making his NHL debut in the playoffs. Makar ended up with one goal and five assists in the postseason.

That jumpstarted his career. But it doesn’t lessen his learning curve, he maintained, through his first regular season.

”It’s just adjusting – whether it’s to the lifestyle or just the game schedule. Everything is different here,” said Makar, whose new place is within walking distance of most of his teammates. ”You have a lot more free time. It’s filling those times with useful stuff that’s going to help you. … It’s your job to worry about this.”

A little bit ago, Avalanche coach Jared Bednar sat down with his young defenseman after not seeing quite the same version of Makar he saw in the playoffs. They went over a few things – using his skating to work his way out of tough situations inside the ”D” zone and taking off if he sees openings in the neutral zone.

No need to tell him twice.

”He’s really implemented it in his game, and really bounced back in a hurry,” Bednar said. ”I feel really comfortable with where his game’s at.”

Avs hold breath about MacKinnon after blowing out Predators

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The Colorado Avalanche boast one of the best lines in the NHL, but right now, all three of those forwards are banged up.

Nathan MacKinnon‘s injury tarnished the Avs’ 9-4 blowout of the Nashville Predators on Thursday, and adds to a troubling trio of injuries, as the team was already dealing without Mikko Rantanen (week-to-week) and Gabriel Landeskog (out indefinitely).

While the Avalanche figure to be without Rantanen and Landeskog for some time, the hope is that MacKinnon’s upper-body injury won’t be major. The Athletic’s Ryan S. Clark reports that Colorado head coach Jared Bednar said MacKinnon was held out from the remainder of Thursday’s lopsided game for precautionary reasons. Could that mean that this won’t be major for MacKinnon? The Avs certainly have to hope so.

Clark also reports that defenseman Nikita Zadorov‘s status is unknown after suffering an upper-body injury of his own.

The Avalanche made big, bold investments in surrounding that super-line with other talent, and many of those players shined bright against the Predators.

MacKinnon actually had a tremendous game even though it was truncated, as the speedy center scored one goal and three assists for four points. He fired 10 SOG on Thursday, and seemed driven to score against the defending Central Division champs:

Key offseason addition Joonas Donskoi managed a hat trick, while both Andre Burakovsky and Cale Makar enjoyed one-goal, two-assist nights.

Remarkably, the Predators were actually up 3-2 at the 4:55 mark of the second period, and then Colorado erupted with a ludicrous six goals in eight minutes:

As important as Landeskog and especially Rantanen is to that top line, MacKinnon is the biggest star on the Avs, and one of the NHL’s brightest overall. Colorado is better positioned to withstand another loss in 2019-20 than the Avs were in 2018-19, but the prospect of missing all three first-liners is daunting.

The Avalanche have to be crossing their fingers that further MacKinnon updates end up being as prominent as that “precautionary” word was.

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.

Milan Lucic delivers another questionable ‘sucker punch’

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At this rate, Milan Lucic might finish the 2019-20 season with more questionable punches than goals.

Much has been made about James Neal making Lucic look bad by comparison, but it’s increasingly clear that Lucic seems to think of himself as an enforcer for the Calgary Flames, as much as anything else. He had zero goals and three assists through 15 games this season heading into Saturday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and his biggest impact might be of the more literal variety.

Blue Jackets rookie Kole Sherwood made what seemed like a pretty innocuous jab for a rebound attempt at Flames goalie David Rittich, and that prompted Lucic to catch him mostly unaware with a very questionable punch.

Was it a sucker punch? Some might say no, but it certainly seemed ugly.

Curiously, Lucic was whistled with a roughing double-minor for the play, rather than something more substantial like a major penalty or misconduct. The NHL tends to let a lot of “after the whistle” things go, so it remains to be seen if anything comes of this, but you have to wonder if the league is comfortable with plays like these.

For what it’s worth, this exchange seemed worse than Lucic’s other borderline one-sided “fight,” although one could question his actions against Colorado Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov from the two teams’ season-opener in October, too:

Should Lucic face supplemental discipline, or was that double-minor sufficient? It definitely helps Lucic’s cause that Sherwood was able to return to the game, which is just the third NHL contest of his career.

UPDATE:

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.