Travis Hamonic

Flames vs. Avalanche: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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It was a 23-point turnaround (84 to 107) for the Calgary Flames this season, and after missing the playoffs by 11 points a year ago they came back this season and claimed the top spot in the Western Conference with six points of cushion in the standings.

It produced their first division title in 13 years, only their second since 1995, and has them going into the postseason as a strong contender for the Stanley Cup.

They have award front-runners for the Hart Trophy (Johnny Gaudreau) and Norris Trophy (Mark Giordano) and a deep, talented roster that is littered with young players just now entering the prime of their career. They are not only a formidable threat to win it all this season, they are probably not going away anytime soon.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, saw their point total regress by five points this season but still managed to secure their second consecutive playoff appearance thanks to an 8-1-2 finish to the regular season that was driven by the firepower of Nathan MacKinnon up front and a spectacular goaltending performance from Philipp Grubauer.

When it comes to individual talent and star power, this series might be one of the most intriguing ones of Round 1 as the two teams boast eight of the top-40 point producers in the NHL this season. It might be the 1 vs. 8 matchup in the Western Conference, but it is probably going to be a lot closer than the gap in the standings might suggest.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Thursday, April 11, 2019, 10 p.m.: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames | SN, TVA Sports, NHL Network
Saturday, April 13, 2019, 10:30 p.m.: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 2019, 10 p.m.: Calgary Flames at Colorado Avalanche | CNBC, SN, CBC, TVA Sports
Wednesday, April 17, 2019, 10 p.m.: Calgary Flames at Colorado Avalanche | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports
Friday, April 19, 2019, TBD: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames | TBD
Sunday, April 21, 2019, TBD: Calgary Flames at Colorado Avalanche | TBD
Tuesday, April 23, 2019, TBD: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames | TBD

FORWARDS

CALGARY: The Flames have assembled an outstanding young core of forwards, led by MVP contender Johnny Gaudreau. Between him, Sean Monahan, Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm the Flames have four of the top-30 scoring forwards in the league this season, and none of them are over the age of 25. In total, they had five 20-goal scorers, seven players score at least 13 goals, and they finished the season as the second-highest scoring team in the league behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning. They have impact players and depth, which is exactly what you need for a lengthy Stanley Cup Playoff run.

COLORADO: The story for the Avalanche for the past two years has been the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. It a trio that stacks up with any other team in the league and they can — and will — carry the entire offense. They have a little more depth than they did a year ago, thanks in part to the career year for Carl Soderberg, but this is still a team that will go as far as its big-three can take them. The big concern is whether or not Rantanen, who has been sidelined since March 21, will be ready for the start of the series.

ADVANTAGE: FLAMES. Both teams have some of the best and most productive forwards in the league, and there will be a ton of star power on the ice throughout this series, but the Flames are just a little bit deeper up front and get the advantage.

DEFENSE

CALGARY: The Flames are an outstanding defensive team and have what should be the Norris Trophy winner in Mark Giordano. At 35 years old he is still a workhorse on their blue line and was the best all-around defender in the league this season due to his offensive production (nearly a point per game) and shutdown play defensively. T.J. Brodie, Noah Hanifin, and Travis Hamonic round out a top-four that help the Flames be one of the best shot suppression teams in the league.

COLORADO: Tyson Barrie has always been an underrated player and Samuel Girard, one of the key pieces they acquired in last year’s Matt Duchene trade, looks like he is on track to becoming a really good defender. The rest of the defense is solid, if unspectacular. Ian Cole is a two-time Stanley Cup winner and a fearless shot-blocker, while Erik Johnson remains a mainstay in their top-four. The Avalanche are not as bad defensively as they have been in recent years, but they are not really a team that is going to lock you down, either.

ADVANTAGE: FLAMES. They have the best defender in the series (Giordano) and the better depth on the blue line. There isn’t a huge gap between these two teams in total goals against, but when it comes to things that the defense can control (shots on goal, scoring chances) the Flames rate significantly higher. Everything after that comes down to goaltending. Speaking of which…

GOALTENDING

CALGARY: Now we get to the concern with this Flames team. Mike Smith has been as bad as it can get in the NHL this season, and while David Rittich has been a nice surprise, he is a massive question mark going into playoffs because he is almost no track record to go by. Even more concerning is the fact he is rolling into the playoffs with an .897 save percentage in his 15 appearances since February 1. If he falters? Well … has Smith done anything to inspire confidence this season?

COLORADO: Philipp Grubauer had a miserable start to the season but has been lights out in the second half, especially down the stretch of the regular season as the Avalanche made their push for a playoff spot. For the season his .917 save percentage is well above the league average, and in his past 16 appearances dating to back to February 1 he is all the way up to .948. He is, at the moment, the hot goalie you hear about this time of year.

ADVANTAGE: AVALANCHE. Simply because right now Grubauer is the hot hand, Rittich is regressing at the wrong time of year, and they do not have a good solution after him.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Will David Rittich be good enough?

He better be, because the Flames really do not have another option. Their depth at forward and defense is as good as it gets in the NHL this season, and their only weakness is at the one position that could do the most damage to their chances. He has not played well down the stretch, and he will be facing a team that has three top-tier scorers and a pretty good power play.

Will they get enough offense after the big three?

The trio of MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Rantanen combined to score 41 percent of the Avalanche’s goals this season. There were only three other teams in the NHL that had a bigger percentage of their goals go to their top-three players, and keep in mind that Landeskog and Rantanen combined to miss 16 man-games due to injury. This is an extremely top heavy team offensively. The problem for the Avalanche is the playoffs often times come down to each team’s top players canceling each other out and the series being determined by one of two things: Goaltending, or depth. The Avalanche might have a slight edge in goal, but they do not have the advantage when it comes to depth.

PREDICTION

FLAMES IN 7. This seems like a series that has a chance to go the distance. The Avalanche are entering the playoffs on a bit of a role, they have the better goalie at the moment, and they might be able to steal enough goals on the power play to really make this close. In the end, though, the Flames do still have the deeper roster up front and on defense and that should — should — be enough to get them through to Round 2.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Islanders vs. Penguins
Jets vs. Blues
Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
Predators vs. Stars
Capitals vs Hurricanes

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.

The Buzzer: A night for clunky defensemen

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Three Stars

1. Ryan O'Reilly

Confession: usually, I giggle when people make a big deal about faceoffs.

It’s been argued, persuasively, that the impact of FWs (faceoff wins, for you non-fantasy people) is often exaggerated. And I agree with those arguments, as much as I feel like I’m affronting the memory of Rod Brind’Amour.

But sometimes stuff like that can provide a portal to other realizations, like the fact that Ryan O’Reilly is putting in serious work for the Blues.

Most obviously, O’Reilly scored a goal and an assist for the Blues in their eyebrow-raising, up-and-down win against the Ducks. Those two points were crucial.

Yet, Troy Terry might technically be the better choice here, as he had three points (all assists, two of them primary) in this same game.

O’Reilly’s overall work really stood out, however, and it starts with the work in the faceoff circle. He went 23-16 on draws, which is just a ridiculous workload for a regular season game that … honestly, only means so much. (The Blues are pretty comfortably placed as the Central’s third seed, in my opinion.)

ROR also logged an impressive 24:37 TOI on Wednesday, more than Colton Parayko (24:21) and only slightly less than Alex Pietrangelo (24:41).

Even beyond Terry, there are other Blues who have arguments for the top three. Robert Thomas inspired Matchbox 20 jokes with two goals. Pietrangelo scored a goal and an assist, as did Brayden Schenn.

Yet, it’s that all-around effort that makes me roar for ROR. I understand if you disagree.

(Consider those other mentions as part of the collective roar argument.)

2. Marc-Andre Fleury

Flames – Golden Knights was a tight 2-1 game, in large part because of the goaltending, as the two teams combined for 72 shots on goal.

Fleury didn’t keep his shutout streak active after blanking opponents for two consecutive games, yet “The Flower” only allowed a single goal against the very-much-flammable Calgary offense, making 33 out of 34 saves.

This is as much as weeklong achievement award as anything else, but even if you just keep it to Wednesday, Fleury was excellent.

I’ve made repeated comments about the Golden Knights needing to rest MAF, and I stand by them, but this was impressive stuff.

3. Alex Ovechkin

From MAF to the rare player who’s often tormented him, we have Ovechkin, who scored a goal and assist, and was just one heady Ivan Provorov play from adding another goal.

Ovechkin continues to make history, and delightfully, he didn’t just do his usual “from the office” thing on Wednesday. Granted, he kind of did, as he scored from that basic spot for his goal, but even then, he needed to “reload” his shot rather than ripping a one-timer.

But it was his pass that really sealed the deal, for me anyway. More on Ovechkin in the rest of The Buzzer …

Highlights of the Night

Including that pass, which set up a Tom Wilson goal:

The Blues managed a staggering win by scoring two goals in 12 seconds in the final minute of the third period against the Ducks:

The other highlight of the night comes next.

Defensemen score goals – clunky and otherwise

The headline revolves around two defensemen scoring unexpected goals. Deryk Engelland scored the game-winning goal for the Golden Knights, while Mitch Marner really set the table for Ron Hainsey(!) to score shorthanded (!!).

But, really, it was a night for defensemen scoring goals in general, whether they’re the ones you’d expect or not.

  • That Golden Knights win against the Flames was all-defensemen goals. Engelland scored, along with a guy you’d expect in Shea Theodore (his 11th of the season), and someone in the middle (Travis Hamonic scored his seventh of 2018-19).
  • Alexander Edler‘s still a worthy contributor, but you don’t really expect the Canucks veteran to score overtime game-winners. He did so on Wednesday, while a very-much expected Maple Leafs defenseman (Morgan Rielly) helped Toronto at least secure a standings point.
  • Six-foot-five Flyers defenseman Philippe Myers scored his first NHL goal. (His nickname better be Philly, or some variation of it.) Ducks defenseman Jaycob Megna is another huge hockey human (listed at six-foot-six) who scored his first career NHL goal on Wednesday. Something was in the air, wasn’t it?

Factoids

So, to review, Ovechkin has more 45+ goal seasons than Wayne Gretzky/Mario Lemieux/Mike Bossy, etc., while Holtby’s winning at a rate that only falls short of the author of “The Game.”

  • Another Canadiens great, Jacques Plante, was third behind Holtby. His name came up again on Wednesday, as Fleury tied Plante with 437 wins, leaving them tied for eighth all-time in NHL history.

Scores

WSH 5 – PHI 3
VAN 3 – TOR 2 (OT)
STL 5 – ANA 4
VGK 2 – CG 1

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.

Big changes have led to big results for Flames

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After they made the playoffs in 2016-17, the Calgary Flames were expected to take a step forward last season. Their failure do so led them to a coaching change and a blockbuster trade with Carolina. So far, those two things have worked out in a big way.

As of right now, the Flames find themselves in second over in the NHL standings, with 60 points. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning (70 points) are ahead of them. New head coach Bill Peters has found a way to get all of his team’s parts firing at the same time.

Although Calgary finds themselves in the middle of the pack when it comes to goals against, they’ve found a way to put the puck in the back of the net with regularity through 45 games. Their 162 goals for are third in the league behind Tampa and San Jose.

When we think of the best lines in hockey, we often think of the top lines in Colorado, Tampa or even Washington, but it’s time to start showing some love to Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm. Gaudreau (66 points in 45 games) is third in league scoring, Monahan (54 points in 45 games) is 11th, and Lindholm (51 points in 45 games) is 16th. Lindholm, who was one of the two players acquired from the ‘Canes over the summer, has already surpassed his career high in points. He’s been an excellent fit with those two players. Oh, and by the way, Matthew Tkachuk is 17th in league scoring with 51 points in 45 games.

As PostMedia’s Wes Gilberston pointed out earlier this week, the Flames are the first team since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins to have four players hit the 50-point mark at this stage of the season. Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis and Tomas Sandstrom accomplished that for the Pens.

Another reason the Flames have been so hard to stop this year, is because of their depth on defense. First, 35-year-old Mark Giordano is having the best year of his career. He’s put himself in the Norris Trophy conversation by picking up 43 points in 43 games. T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic and the other piece of the trade with Carolina, Noah Hanifin, round out the top four. That’s an impressive group of defenders for one team to possess.

So, adding Peters behind the bench and acquiring Lindholm and Hanifin from Carolina have been excellent moves. Johnny Gaudreau taking his game to another level is also a huge reason why the Flames are where they are today. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t vulnerable.

The biggest question mark they have can be found between the pipes. Mike Smith, who comes with a cap hit of $4.25M, hasn’t been the answer. The 36-year-old has a 12-9-1 record with a 3.09 goals-against-average and a .886 save percentage this season. He just hasn’t been good enough.

So the team decided to turn to David Rittich, who’s been a significant upgrade on Smith. The 26-year-old hasn’t lost a game in regulation since mid-December. He owns a 16-4-3 record with a 2.42 goals-against-average and a .921 save percentage. The numbers look good, but how will he respond when the real pressure begins? We simply don’t know. Can he take his game to another level in the postseason when goals typically tend to drop a little bit? We don’t know.

If he can keep playing this way, the Flames will have a legitimate shot of winning it all. If he doesn’t, they could find themselves bowing out of the playoffs fairly early.

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.

Milan Lucic gets in heavyweight fight after thunderous hit

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Much to the Edmonton Oilers’ chagrin, Milan Lucic isn’t the all-encompassing threat he once was. To be more precise, he’s not exactly the type who will score enough to justify his $6 million cap hit very often these days.

Lucic is still an enormous human, however, and sometimes you get a taste of what made him such a menacing presence in the past. Sunday stood as one of those examples, as Lucic delivered a thunderous check on Calgary Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic, then went toe-to-toe with Anthony Peluso in what seemed like a pretty even fight.

(You can watch it all in the video above.)

If you’re around an old-school type, you’ll probably overhear something about how this fight somehow propels the Oilers to victory rather than Ken Hitchcock’s patented “Connor McDavid scores the only goal” formula. Lucic kindly obliged following his first scrap of 2018-19:

Either way, the Oilers snagged a 1-0 win against the Flames, and Lucic looked like a beast, at least for that stretch. It hasn’t always been pretty, yet Edmonton will take it, especially when “it” qualifies as a win against their nearby rivals.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Chris Kunitz ejected after elbow to head

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It sure feels like there’s been a lot of game misconducts for dastardly things this weekend.

The latest comes on Sunday night after Chicago Blackhawks forward Chris Kunitz got his elbow up into the face of Calgary Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic in the second period.

Here’s the tape:

Kunitz was assessed a five-minute major for elbowing and a game misconduct.

Hamonic was bloodied on the play and had to leave the game to get fixed up. He was able to return later in the period.

The ordeal proved costly for the Blackhawks, who surrendered two goals on the ensuing penalty.

Other ejections this weekend include:


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