Pierre-Edouard Bellemare

Avalanche keep rolling on the road, defeat Wild

The Colorado Avalanche have their eyes on a big prize this spring. In order to reach their destination, winning tight, physical games and collecting victories on the road will be major assets.

On Sunday, the Avalanche checked a lot of boxes in their 3-2 win against the surging Minnesota Wild. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog scored as Colorado closed a five-game road trip with a 4-1 record.

“We have done a great job dialing up that playoff mentality, that desperate mentality,” defenseman Ian Cole told Pierre McGuire. “We are trying to catch up to St. Louis, we need points.”

Minnesota’s three-game winning streak came to an end as the Wild missed out on two crucial points in their quest to climb the Western Conference standings. Kevin Fiala scored once again, but Minnesota remains four points and three teams shy of returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Youthful Avalanche wise beyond their years

A championship window can close as quickly as it opens.

For the Avalanche, there is a young nucleus in place, and the time to strike is quickly approaching. MacKinnon is playing at a Hart Trophy level, Cale Makar looks like he has played in the NHL for over a decade and Joe Sakic’s offseason maneuvers have helped turn a one-line team into a complete team.

Additions aside, one of the biggest signs that Colorado is ready to take that quantum leap has been its maturity.

[NHL ON NBCSN: Ovechkin’s chase for 700th goal continues Monday]

“We have done a great job learning as the season goes,” Cole continued. “We would lose some leads earlier this season. We are continuing to dial in that end of game situational play. We are maturing quickly. For a young team, that’s great to see. We have to keep playing.”

Goaltender Controversy?

The Avalanche will need one of their goaltenders to force Jared Bednar’s hand and establish themselves as the starting goaltender.

Pavel Francouz made 34 stops in the win and improved to 13-4-2 in 19 starts. In the final period, Francouz’s stable play in net helped the Avalanche remain calm and protect a one-goal lead.

Philipp Grubauer has been the preferred goaltender and has received the lion’s share of the work this season, but Francouz is stating his case to seize control. A steady backup goaltender is important during the regular season, but in the playoffs it could lead to compromised decision-making when it matters most. Colorado is not hoping one goaltender’s play slips, instead they are yearning for one of those two netminders to separate themselves.

Ovechkin’s quest for 700:


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.

Ovechkin 700: Opponents helpless vs. NHL’s best goal-scorer

WASHINGTON — Alex Ovechkin arrived in Washington in the summer of 2005 wearing mismatched flip flops and Daisy Duke shorts. He looked like a lost tourist.

Ovechkin went No. 1 in the draft and was touted as a can’t-miss prospect, but Capitals teammates wondered aloud if this guy really was supposed to be the new face of the franchise, much less an elite player.

A decade and a half later, Ovechkin is the grinning, gap-toothed face of NHL goal-scoring, much to the continued bewilderment of his opponents.

The big Russian left winger is on the verge of becoming just the eighth player to score 700 career goals thanks to a once-in-a-generation combination of physicality, power and a unique shot that has made him nearly impossible to stop.

”He just can score from anywhere,” Calgary defenseman Mark Giordano said. ”You sort of think teams would come up with a game plan to stop him, but you can’t.”

No game plan has worked. Like the cutter flustered batters knew was coming from New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, Ovechkin comes at goaltenders and defensemen with the same relentless, masterful approach – and the numbers keep climbing.

Ovechkin has never scored fewer than 32 goals in a season, and his 11 seasons of 40 or more trails only Wayne Gretzky for the most in league history. He has averaged 0.5 goal every playoff game, 10th-best all time, and contributed to winning the Stanley Cup and postseason MVP honors in 2018.

A dozen goaltenders and defenders who have tried to contain Ovechkin described the task to The Associated Press as his milestone approached.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

”Whatever small inch you give him, he’s going to find a way to throw it through your legs from the blue line top cheese and you’re like, ‘What the heck just happened?”’ said Colorado forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who faced Ovechkin in the 2018 final with Vegas. ”Maybe you’re thinking your goalie should have it and you look at the replay like, ‘OK, that was a heck of a shot.’ … It’s just that at any time in a game he can have an off night and out of nowhere, boom, he can have a hat trick.”

Bellemare made that observation just days before Ovechkin had no shots with six minutes left against Los Angeles. He then scored once to tie it, a second time to give Washington the lead and a third into an empty net to seal another win.

Those were goal Nos. 696, 697 and 698.

PROLIFIC SNIPER

Ovechkin’s job from day one has been to shoot the puck as much as possible. He has an NHL-best 5,483 shots since 2005-06. No other player has 4,000. Ovechkin’s stick – an open blade with a big curve at the toe – and how he releases a shot also puts him in a class of his own.

”His puck flies not straight,” said Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has allowed nine goals to Ovechkin. ”It’s kind of changing direction every time, so it’s pretty hard to stop for a goalie. It’s like knuckleball.”

A knucklepuck with a 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker’s strength behind it. It’s not just Ovechkin’s release but how the puck feels when it gets on net.

”His shot is absolutely a rocket or missile,” said Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, who has given up six of Ovechkin’s goals. ”He shoots from anywhere and he shoots it hard and heavy.”

LETHAL SPEED

Ovechkin has made a living – roughly $113 million so far with another contract expected to start in 2021-22 – by not only making goalies but the league’s best defensive defensemen miss. Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty believes the only way to slow Ovechkin down is to get in his face in the neutral zone before he can pick up steam.

Problem is, even at 34 and past the prime of most scorers, Ovechkin still has the lower-body strength and footspeed to glide around opponents like they’re pylons.

”He still has that ability from when he was younger to beat you one-on-one, so you can’t just play the shot or you can’t just back off,” said Avalanche defenseman Ian Cole, who battled Ovechkin for years as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. ”You’re in a bit of a quagmire when you’re playing against him just because there’s so many ways that he can beat you and he is so good, he’s so good at cutting to the middle, too, on his off side and letting these pucks go through traffic.”

LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION

There is no safe area when it comes to defending Ovechkin.

”He can make moves and shoot from anywhere and it can go in,” Kings forward Trevor Lewis said. ”Most guys, if you keep them to the outside and they’re shooting, they’re not going to bury it every time. But it seems like every shot he takes, it’s got a chance to go in.”

Connor Hellebuyck vividly remembers his first encounter with Ovechkin as a rookie. The Winnipeg goaltender felt like the scene played out in slow motion before the puck barely stayed out, but he allowed two goals to Ovechkin in a game a couple of years later.

”He came down and ripped what looked like a little snap shot from the top of the circle,” Hellebuyck recalled. ”It came off so heavy and I got such a good beat on it, but I was able to watch it completely pass me and I missed it.”

OVI’S OFFICE

It’s the elephant in the room. Everyone knows, at some point, Ovechkin will rifle a blazing one-timer from the left faceoff circle on the power play. It is telegraphed almost every time, and yet it has proven to be one of the most potent shots in the history of the sport.

”It’s sometimes hard to get it by a shot-blocker but sometimes it’s easy,” Doughty said. ”And he’s going to be able to get it by one way or the other. You just have to be on the same page as your goalie to be able to make the save or make the block. We all know it’s coming, but that shot’s so good.”

Ovechkin on the power play is such an institution that teammates told Bellemare when he entered the league not to try to chase him on the penalty kill and look like a fool. Bellemare is in awe of how much opponents can focus on him and still end up watching him celebrate another goal.

”We watch video, we study, but still, it keeps happening,” he said. ”This is what it is. Everybody’s trying to play their best game when we meet that guy, and still he finds a way to go through you. This is what is unbelievable.”

Ovechkin last season became the oldest player to lead the NHL in goals since Phil Esposito in 1974-75. He refuses to reflect on his accomplishments until he hangs up his skates.

”I’m still playing,” Ovechkin said. ”After career, yeah, I’m pretty sure me and my family and my friends are gonna talk about it. But now, we, and me personally, I’m gonna try to concentrate about just go out there and do my job.”

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.

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.”

Blue Jackets’ Foligno suspended 3 games for elbowing Bellemare

6 Comments

Columbus Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno was ejected from Saturday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche for a nasty elbow to the head of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.

That play will result in him missing a few more games.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced on Monday afternoon that Foligno has been suspended three games for elbowing.

Bellemare was diagnosed with a concussion is going to remain out of the Avalanche for the time being.

Here is a look at the play, as well as the NHL’s explanation for the suspension.

The league notes that this hit can not be classified as excusable or accidental contact where Foligno raises his arm as a reflex to brace for sudden contact or to attempt to avoid a collision. Instead, it is Foligno that is in control of the play and initiates the contact, meaning the onus is on him to deliver a clean body check. He obviously did not do that and instead extended his elbow forcefully into Bellemare’s jaw.

Foligno said after the game he did not know he hit Bellemare in the head and was sick to his stomach when he realized he did.

Prior to this suspension Foligno had only been fined one time in his NHL career and never suspended, but the fact that Bellemare was injured on the play almost certainly added some games to Foligno’s punishment.

In 17 games this season he has one goal and six assists for the Blue Jackets.

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.