Philipp Grubauer

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

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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.”

Avalanche stumble upon new hero after another startling injury

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The Colorado Avalanche’s list of injuries was already pretty ridiculous, particularly for mid-November, and things got worse on Tuesday. Even so, they found a way to beat the Winnipeg Jets 4-0.

Less than a minute into the game, Jets star Mark Scheifele fell into Avs goalie Pavel Francouz, who was already taking over for an injured Philipp Grubauer. It was a hard collision, as you can see from the video above. Scheifele received a justifiable interference penalty for the exchange, and was seen apologizing.

Francouz would not return to the contest, and it’s unknown if he’ll miss additional time. If you want an indication of how much injuries are piling up even just in Colorado’s net, realize that the Avs had to call upon a fabled emergency goalie. In this case, it was Byron Spriggs.

The Avalanche would never need Byron Spriggs.

Nope, instead, Adam Werner came in cold for his first NHL start — and managed an outstanding shutout in everything but its name.

(Technically, Werner didn’t play the full contest, so he’ll have to accept that it’s a shutout only in our hearts and minds, not to mention between the Jets’ expletives.)

Werner didn’t just get propped up in a 4-0 win; he made a resounding 40 saves for that basically-it’s-a-shutout.

The Avalanche did an OK job protecting Werner from the toughest of opportunities — via Natural Stat Trick, Winnipeg’s expected goals was 2.41, with nine high-danger chances — but 40 shots on goal are 40 shots on goal. Patrik Laine fired eight SOG alone.

Now, it’s not fair to call Werner an unbeatable unknown.

The 22-year-old Swede was at least drafted, as the Avalanche selected Werner in the fifth round (131st overall) in 2016. While his AHL stats haven’t been anything to write home about, there are indications here and there that he might be more than a guy who stumbled upon a lucky night.

But … he also might be a guy who stumbled upon a lucky night. Either way, it was one great out-of-nowhere performance, and it’s easy to see why he looked so stunned after the win.

(Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Remarkable stuff, and beyond this coming out party for Adam Werner and Adam Werner Google searches, it was another reminder that Nathan MacKinnon is ridiculously explosive. Despite the Avs missing Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog (among others), the speedy center was involved in all four of Colorado’s tallies, scoring two goals and two assists.

Maybe that’s the formula for the 10-5-2 Avalanche, at least while they’re riddled with injuries: “MacKinnon being MacKinnon plus some random hero popping up out of the blue/fifth round of 2016.”

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.

NHL Injury roundup: Updates on Letang, Grubauer, and Little

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The Dallas Stars are not the only team dealing with some significant injuries at the moment.

Let’s take a quick look around the league at some other notable injury situations on Thursday.

Penguins won’t have Kris Letang on Thursday. The Penguins were finally starting to get healthy and play up to their potential with a fully stocked roster, and then another injury situation developed. Letang, their No. 1 defenseman, exited their game against Boston on Monday night after two periods and will not be available on Thursday as they try to snap the New York Islanders’ 10-game winning streak.

Letang has been off to a great start this season and his absence will be a significant one. He will be replaced on the top defense pairing by rookie John Marino. Marino has been impressive so far this season and just scored his first NHL goal on Monday.

More injury problems for Avalanche. Already without two of their top-three forwards (Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog) the Avalanche announced on Thursday that starting goalie Philipp Grubauer will miss the next couple of games due to a lower-body injury. In 11 starts this season Grubauer has a .915 save percentage. The goaltending duties will now fall on Pavel Francouz in Grubauer’s absence.

When the Avalanche have been healthy this season they have looked every bit the Stanley Cup contender they were supposed to be but have cooled off in recent games as the injuries have piled up. They have dropped five in a row and six of their past seven, and things will not get any easier with their starting goalie out of the lineup.

The Avalanche are home on Thursday against the Nashville Predators.

An update on Bryan Little. Scary situation for the Jets when forward Bryan Little was hit in the head with a puck earlier this week, requiring 25 stitches.

On Thursday, coach Paul Maurice offered an update on Little and revealed that the forward is dealing with a perforated ear drum and is currently experiencing vertigo. That update comes via Jets analyst Mitchell Clinton. Little is expected to make a complete recovery but there is no timeline on when he will be able to return to the ice.

In seven games this season Little has two goals and three assists for the Jets.

Blues will be without Steen for several weeks. Here’s another big one for the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues.

The team announced on Thursday that Steen has been placed on injured serve with a high-ankle sprain and will be re-evaluated in four weeks. He was injured in the Stars’ win over the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday night.

He is off to a slow start this season with zero goals and five assists in 17 games, but the Blues are already without their top player, Vladimir Tarasenko, and just traded Robby Fabbri on Wednesday night.

Related: Injuries mounting for surging Stars

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.

Rask, Rinne, Fleury are NHL’s hottest goalies so far

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With every team except the New Jersey Devils at 10 games played or more – New Jersey’s played nine – this seems like a good time to check in on the most important (yet also most unpredictable) position in hockey: goalies.

These netminders are off to the hottest starts so far in the young 2019-20 season.

Tuukka Rask

If forced to name a top goalie so far, I’d lean toward the Boston Bruins veteran.

Rask is 6-0-1 so far, with a league-leading .951 save percentage.

The 32-year-old sparkles in deeper categories, too. Rask ranks third in even-strength save percentage at .961. According to Hockey Reference’s Goals Saved Against Average (GSAA) – a metric that attempts to account for the difficulty of shots a goalie faces – Rask leads all goaltenders by a healthy margin with 8.69 GSAA.

Every single one of his starts has been considered a “quality start.”

Pekka Rinne

Big-time Finns are off to great starts.

Rinne is tied with Penguins backup Tristan Jarry for the league’s best even-strength save percentage at .964, and Rinne’s off to a great start in the standings, going 7-0-1. Rask and Rinne are in a four-way tie for first place in shutouts with two alongside Carter Hutton and Petr Mrazek.

Rinne’s 6.53 GSAA ranks third. There was a time when people chalked up some of Rinne’s success to the team in front of him, and a brief period (especially 2015-16) when Rinne struggled by any measure. That’s looking more like a blip in an increasingly brilliant career.

Darcy Kuemper

I must admit, I wondered if the Coyotes were being hasty in extending Kuemper, as great as he was basically since the calendar hit 2019. Instead, GM John Chayka’s proactiveness might pay off big time, as Kuemper’s carried over that great finish from 2018-19 to 2019-20 so far.

If Arizona can give Kuemper more consistent goal support (5-3-0), he might get the sort of wins that Vezina-voting GMs gravitate to. Otherwise, he checks out with a .933 save percentage and 5.62 GSAA.

Marc-Andre Fleury

At some point, it feels like the Golden Knights are going to overwork their workhorse. The 34-year-old remains sturdy and often spectacular right now, though.

His eight wins (8-3-0) lead the NHL at the moment, and his 334 saves top all as well (though John Gibson‘s generally being asked to do even more in Anaheim, which is sadly not much of a surprise). Fleury’s .928 save percentage might not be outright spectacular compared to the best on this list, but his second-ranked 7.14 GSAA helps illustrate just how much Vegas depends upon “The Flower.”

Lightning round

  • Robin Lehner: The Blackhawks have fond memories of Corey Crawford (.888 save percentage), but might want to ride the hot hand in Lehner, who has a .936 save percentage through six games. There are signs that Lehner might be able to bail out a shaky Blackhawks defense, considering a high GSAA.
  • When you consider how well Pittsburgh’s played despite injuries that are finally healing up, give Sidney Crosby a lot of credit. Don’t sleep on Jarry and Matt Murray, though, as they have put together great stats early on.
  • The Canucks renaissance is based on a hot top line, but also Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko, with Demko maybe arguing for a bigger slice of the starts with a .941 save percentage. Both have been lights out, though.
  • Connor Hellebuyck: For all the doom and gloom for Winnipeg, the Jets would be in bigger trouble without a so-far redemptive season for Hellebuyck, who has a .924 save percentage and has generally saved their bacon.
  • Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton have both been fantastic for the Sabres, ranking alongside each other at seventh and eighth in GSAA, and each have the requisite strong vanilla save percentages.
  • By John Gibson standards, a .920 save percentage is pedestrian, but again, the Ducks are asking him to work miracles. He’s pulling off magic, at minimum.
  • Last season, Thomas Greiss was almost as great as Lehner. So far in 2019-20, Greiss is … almost as great as Lehner (.931 save percentage, 4.02 GSAA).
  • To round out this post, Philipp Grubauer and Mikko Koskinen have had the occasional off start, but have mostly been strong for the Avs and Oilers respectively.

When you consider how many of these goalies are on teams that are mysteriously red-hot, maybe those torrid runs aren’t such a mystery. The bigger mystery is: how many of them can keep at least most of this up?

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.

Penguins remain hot with win vs. Avalanche

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Brandon Tanev notched a shorthanded goal in overtime to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel also scored as Pittsburgh recorded its fourth straight victory. Matt Murray added 26 saves.

Matt Calvert and Nathan MacKinnon found the back of the net for the Avalanche but their six-game point streak to open the season came to an end.

Crosby continues to dazzle

The Penguins captain has clearly moved on from a disappointing playoff run last year, which ended in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Islanders. Instead, Crosby is off to a tremendous start, recording points in each of Pittsburgh’s seven games and leading the club on the ice to a 5-2-0 record.

Crosby netted a highlight-reel backhander to tie the game late in the first period and then assisted on a Jake Guentzel tally in the second.

The superstar center craftily tipped the puck around Erik Johnson, played the puck with his glove, and then somehow had the wherewithal to outlast goaltender Philipp Grubauer until an opening appeared for him to slide a backhander into the net.

Early in the second period, Crosby intercepted a pass at the blueline, then set up Guentzel to help the Penguins grab a 2-1 lead.

While several notable players remain sidelined, Crosby will be expected to lead the Penguins on the ice, and continue to improve the players around him. Pittsburgh will need Crosby to play at the top of his game until reinforcements return over the next few weeks.

Avalanche upcoming free agents

After the Mikko Rantanen contract issue this past summer, the Avalanche have several pending RFA’s for next summer.

Colorado is expected to be a legit Stanley Cup Contender with a great mix of dynamic playmakers, infusion of youth and seasoned veterans capable of leading the way during turbulent stretches.

However, Bob McKenzie offered that general manager Joe Sakic wants to see how the first part of the season plays out before engaging in contract talks.

Andre Burakovsky, Tyson Jost and Nikita Zadorov headline the pending RFA class and all presumably have a role to fill moving forward.

Is Lafferty here to stay?

The Penguins have been bitten by the injury bug early and have been forced to rely on their organizational depth to stay afloat during a challenging stretch.

During their Stanley Cup-winning years, the Penguins have always been able to call up a role player to fill a specific need. Is Sam Lafferty the next player to seamlessly fit in?

Lafferty was close to making the team out of training camp according to Bob McKenzie, but fell victim to the numbers game of a roster. However, injuries to five impact forwards — Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust and Jared McCann — created a roster spot for him to slide in.

“We always felt like Sam was close coming into this training camp this year. But I think he has a whole lot more confidence in himself that he belongs here,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And that’s great for him, and that’s great for us.”

The 24-year-old originally from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, about two hours outside of Pittsburgh, Lafferty has taken advantage of the opportunity recording five points over the previous three games.

“He’s earned his playing time. He’s just playing terrific hockey,” Sullivan said. “He made a difference every game he’s been in. As a result, he’s getting more ice time. He’s a very good penalty-killer. I think he really understands his role and is taking pride in it. You can see it every shift. He’s gaining more confidence.”

The Penguins have done an excellent job in sliding players into appropriate roles, and Lafferty is just the latest example. Does the kid have what it takes to stick around for a full season and continue to make a difference? We will find out as the season goes on.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.