Samuel Girard

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The Buzzer: Rantanen dominates in return; Driedger gets shutout in first start

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Three Stars

1. Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. After being sidelined for more than a month Rantanen returned to the Avalanche lineup on Saturday and picked right up where he left off, recording four points in a complete destruction of the Chicago Blackhawks. He is now up to 16 points in 10 games this season, and with him back in the lineup the Avalanche dominant duo of Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon is going to start taking over games again. They are still without Gabriel Landeskog but have managed to keep piling up points thanks to the brilliance of MacKinnon and the improved depth throughout the roster. Given all of the salary cap space they still have they are going to have a chance to add a major piece before the trade deadline and be a force in the Western Conference playoffs. Joonas Donskoi also had four points for the Avalanche on Saturday, while MacKinnon added three. This game also featured one of the most random and unexpected fights of the season when Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat squared off against Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard.

2. Chris Driedger, Florida Panthers. With big-money free agent Sergei Bobrovsky off to a terrible start this season, the Panthers turned to the 25-year-old Driedger for his first career start on Saturday against the Nashville Predators. He made quite an impact turning aside all 27 shots he faced as the Panthers began a nine-game homestand. Before Saturday Driedger had only made three relief appearances (all with the Ottawa Senators) in his very brief NHL career.

3. Tanner Pearson, Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks have been waiting for some of their depth players to make an impact offensively this season, and it has finally started to happen over the past couple of games. Pearson had a huge game in their 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers, scoring two goals and adding two assists. Unlike Wednesday’s game in Pittsburgh, they were able to hold on to this three-goal third period lead to snap what had been a brief two-game losing streak.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • Alex Ovechkin became just the fifth player in NHL history to record 15 consecutive 20-goal seasons to begin a career. He also moved into 10th place all-time with his 24th career hat trick. Read all about it here.
  • Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov teamed up for a shutout for the New York Islanders as they beat the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets were one of four teams to lose a defenseman to injury on Saturday.
  • The Toronto Maple Leafs won for the fourth time in five games under new coach Sheldon Keefe thanks to a John Tavares overtime winner against the Buffalo Sabres.
  • Alexandar Georgiev stopped all 33 shots he faced for the New York Rangers in a 4-0 win over their arch-rivals, the New Jersey Devils.
  • Big night for Calgary Flames forward Elias Lindholm as he scored two goals, giving him 14 on the season, in a 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators.
  • Defenseman Justin Faulk scored his first goal as a member of the St. Louis Blues in a 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • Logan Couture scored two goals for the San Jose Sharks as they erased an early two-goal deficit to beat the Arizona Coyotes by a 4-2 margin.
  • Jack Campbell was outstanding for the Los Angeles Kings, stopping 32 out of 33 shots in a 2-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets.

Highlights of the Night

Ivan Provorov lifted the Philadelphia Flyers to a 4-3 overtime win against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday with this incredible goal in the extra period.

Avs get first taste of life without Rantanen against Golden Knights

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Learning that Mikko Rantanen is most likely week-to-week, rather than month-to-month, after a scary-looking injury was mostly cause for a sigh of relief from the Colorado Avalanche.

Still, being without a star player for several games is far from ideal, and the Avs aren’t exactly getting eased into that grind, as they face a tough opponent in the Golden Knights in Vegas on Friday.

Early on, it appears as though J.T. Compher is the winner of the replacing Rantanen sweepstakes, as he’ll slide into a first-line role with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. While line juggling is common in the modern NHL, the Avs’ top line has been practically glued together, particularly the duo of MacKinnon and Rantanen. Via Natural Stat Trick, MacKinnon’s played 2,700 minutes with Rantanen and a bit less than 523 minutes without him since 2017-18.

While the Avs’ top line has been synchronized with each other, Compher noted to the Avs website that he’s been used to moving around the lineup.

“Over the last few years I have played with a lot of different guys in a lot of different spots,” Compher said. “For me when I get put in a new spot, it is not too different. Just trying to play my game, play with speed, hard on pucks, creating turnovers and the more I can get it in Landy and MacK’s hands, the better we are going to be.”

In particular, Compher’s shot might help him produce with those top players:

Speaking of different guys in different spots, this will also serve as an opportunity for the continued growth of the Avs’ supporting cast.

As great as Rantanen and MacKinnon have been in helping Colorado to a 7-1-1 start with 12 points apiece, the Avs are less one-dimensional than they’ve been in the past thanks to a hot start from the likes of Andre Burakovsky, who ties rising star defenseman Cale Makar for third place in team scoring with eight points.

The Avalanche’s top power play unit still seems pretty stout on paper, via Left Wing Lock: MacKinnon, Landeskog, Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri, and Samuel Girard.

The Avs are getting dragged into this, but nonetheless, Rantanen’s injury serves as an impetus to experiment with different combinations. It will still likely hurt in the short term, yet finding different groups and styles that work might come in handy if Colorado makes it a third straight year of playoff berths.

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.

Sidney Crosby bamboozles Avs with absurd backhand goal

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The Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Colorado Avalanche 3-2 in overtime on Wednesday, with hockey fans being treated to some Sidney Crosby vs. Nathan MacKinnon.

Now, with hockey, you don’t always get to see two superstars actually face off, as coaches sometimes avoid best-on-best matchups. Delightfully, we’ve seen Crosby vs. MacKinnon quite a bit through the early stages of Wednesday’s games, and both have managed to dazzle.

… Crosby’s won the first round, though. He set up some great chances with pinpoint passes to Dominik Simon and Jake Guentzel, but the Penguins couldn’t get on the board until Crosby took things into his own (back)hands. In a truly mind-blowing display of skill and timing, Crosby corralled a bouncing puck, beat Erik Johnson and Samuel Girard‘s pokecheck attempt, and then waited out Philipp Grubauer to score a highlight-reel goal.

MacKinnon, meanwhile, is off to tougher start. That’s mainly because of a debatable hit by Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist:

MacKinnon seemed shaken up by the hit, yet he didn’t appear to leave the Avs’ bench. Sometimes we see players realize that they were injured after the adrenaline of game action wears off, so this is a situation to watch. (Ed Olczyk mentioned that MacKinnon was “laboring” early in the second period.

On one hand, MacKinnon struggled at times …

On the other, he managed to score later in the game, so who knows if there will be lingering issues?

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.

Examining Avs’ salary cap, Stanley cup window after signing Rantanen

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It took almost the entire offseason, but the Colorado Avalanche did it. They locked down the last big-name RFA remaining by signing Mikko Rantanen to a six-year deal that carries a $9.2 million AAV.

Initially, it brings to mind favorable comparisons to the Maple Leafs, as Mitch Marner received the same term at an expensive $10.893M cap hit.

But consider another comparison: Matthew Tkachuk and the Flames. In that case, a three-year deal with a $7M AAV opened a three-year window for Calgary to compete for a Stanley Cup, or at least on paper. (As we saw with the Washington Capitals, sometimes the breakthrough comes after you think you had your best chance.)

In the case of the Avalanche, you can look at a few different windows thanks to a few different factors.

The Mac Factor (through 2022-23)

The biggest window comes from getting Nathan MacKinnon, easily one of the most dynamic stars in the NHL, for what feels like close to a 50-percent discount at an absurdly low $6.3M cap hit. To the envy of basically the entire league, that almost larcenous deal runs through 2022-23.

The Avalanche getting four years of Rantanen and MacKinnon for a combined AAV of $15.5M provides an enormous competitive advantage. You could argue that “the rest is gravy,” but in a team sport like hockey, that gravy would be needed to complete a championship meal.

Other noteworthy contracts that last at least four more years include:

The Avalanche added some term with a few of these deals, and also made a key decision to move on from Tyson Barrie, exchanging him in a deal that brought in Nazem Kadri (28, $4.5M through 2021-22).

Decisions coming after 2020-21

Eventually, the Avs will need to decide who will remain a core player over the longer haul, who might be “the guy” in net, and how much they’ll pay key prospects.

While Ian Cole (30, $4.25M) strikes as less of an agonizing choice one way or another, not every decision will be easy. Captain Gabriel Landeskog often combines with MacKinnon and Rantanen to form one of the best bang-for-your-puck, top-heavy top lines in the league, and he’s dirt-cheap at $5.57M, but only for two more seasons. Despite it feeling like Landeskog’s been around forever, he’s only 26, yet the Avs will need to decide if he’d be worth handing what you’d assume would be a much bigger contract, even if he likely would fall behind Rantanen’s big deal.

Two years also covers the contract of Philipp Grubauer, 27, and his $3.33M AAV. Grubauer shook off early struggles to look promising, but will he be a franchise goalie? We’ll see.

With two years remaining on his rookie deal, Cale Makar could earn an astronomical raise from his $880K, considering the promise he’s shown already.

Colorado will also need to make choices regarding Andre Burakovsky and others entering contract years.

Strike soon

The Avalanche were fairly aggressive this offseason, although they didn’t land a big fish on the scale of a, say, Artemi Panarin.

With savings only lasting two years for Makar and four for MacKinnon, Colorado should be proactive in trying to take their best shots, and soon. Whether they try to do so by trade or free agency, the best time for blockbuster moves might be the 2020 offseason. They’ll no longer have $4.25M in dead money from retaining salary for Tyson Barrie and buying out Brooks Orpik, and so it’s not surprising there’s big space coming soon. Cap Friendly estimates their cap spendings for 2020-21 at about $57.136M with 13 roster spots covered, which would provide $24.37M to work with if the ceiling remained at $81.5M.

That’s a lot of money to work with, and now that they have cost certainty for a while with their biggest names, they can try to take a big shot. Maybe that would mean targeting the next Mark Stone like Vegas did: by identifying someone via trade, rather than free agency, and thus buying another playoff run from that player. They should have room to work with in 2019-20, although you never know if there’s a lower internal budget for spending …

***

There’s a lot to be excited about with the Avalanche, especially with Rantanen being 22, MacKinnon being 24, Makar being 20, and so on.

The instinct might be to sit back and relax, but the Avalanche should instead leap at this opportunity to make big leaps rather than more modest steps. As impressive as these bargains are, those coupons will eventually expire.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.

Avs a trendy pick for deep playoff run after busy offseason

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DENVER — New arrival Nazem Kadri wasn’t with his Colorado Avalanche teammates very long before making a quick observation.

Definitely contenders.

”I’ve been around some good teams and this is certainly one that I think could compete to go the distance,” Kadri said. ”We’ve got a good mix of veteran leadership and youth and I think that’s a lethal combination.”

That lineup should be even more potent once forward Mikko Rantanen returns. The restricted free agent is away from the team as he tries to work out a new deal.

”We’re excited to have him here soon,” linemate Nathan MacKinnon said.

Following a second straight playoff appearance, general manager Joe Sakic decided to reshape his roster. Kadri was acquired in the deal that sent defenseman Tyson Barrie and forward Alexander Kerfoot to Toronto. In other trades, Sakic acquired defenseman Kevin Connauton from Arizona and left wing Andre Burakovsky from Washington.

Sakic also added veteran center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare as a free agent and right wing Joonas Donskoi. They also selected defenseman Bowen Byram with the No. 4 overall pick in the draft.

”Joe said it fairly early on in the offseason process that we’re going to be smart but aggressive,” captain Gabriel Landeskog said. ”That’s what we were. We went out and got some really good pieces.”

That’s in addition to already having one of the top lines in hockey with Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen. Not only that, but a talented blue line buoyed by youngsters Cale Makar and Samuel Girard.

No wonder the Avalanche are on everyone’s radar as a team to watch.

”It’s nice to have some pressure,” MacKinnon said. ”We’re not just the bad Avs or whatever anymore. We’re a contender and that’s fun. We all want pressure. It’s no fun coming in as an underdog. The best teams have pressure on them.”

Here are things to know before the Avalanche open the season Oct. 3 against Calgary:

WHO’S HERE: Connauton, RW Valeri Nichushkin, Bellemare, Byram, D Calle Rosen, Kadri, Donskoi and Burakovsky.

WHO’S NOT: Barrie, Kerfoot, F Carl Soderberg, F Derick Brassard, G Semyon Varlamov, F Sven Andrighetto, F Gabriel Bourque.

KEY PLAYERS: Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen combined for 106 goals and 155 assists a season ago. The team was 24-6-5 when they each collected a point in a game. Philipp Grubauer enters the season as the primary goaltender after going 7-0-2 in his final nine starts of the regular season to get the Avalanche into the postseason. He was 7-5 in Colorado’s playoff run.

OUTLOOK: Colorado is a pick by some pundits to make it to the final of the Western Conference. Kadri already sees something building. ”I love the expectation and love the standard these guys hold themselves to,” he said. The Avalanche stunned the top-seeded Flames last season, winning the series 4-1, before falling in Game 7 to San Jose. ”It’s like every new season, you look back in the rearview mirror and learn from things, but you can’t dwell on them,” Landeskog said. ”You have to move forward. It’s a new year. It’s a new group. We’re super-excited what we have here.”

PREDICTION: The Avalanche stressed consistency as an important ingredient in taking the next step. Colorado was tied for the most points in the Western Conference after games on Dec. 7 and then went through a rough stretch that nearly cost the Avs a playoff spot before bouncing back. ”The guys that were here last year, we definitely learned from that,” Landeskog said. ”Because from Dec. 1 through whatever, we weren’t playing good enough. I don’t know how many games we managed to win, but it wasn’t enough. It nearly ended up costing us a playoff berth.”