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Avalanche are mile-high threat to Predators in Colorado

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Despite giving up the first goal in each of the opening games of the first round, the Predators managed wins against the Colorado Avalanche in both contests in Nashville so far.

The Minnesota Wild have already shown that a change of venue can provide a team a shot in the arm, but the Avalanche’s home-ice advantage has the potential to be as extreme as any team in the NHL. Colton Sissons acknowledged how winded you can become thanks to the altitude in Denver, as NHL.com’s Rick Sadowski reports.

“For me personally, I’m second-winded a little bit more on the bench, especially early in games,” Sissons said. “You get adjusted to [the altitude] pretty quick. Having a pregame skate this morning also helps.”

The Predators boast some assets that make Sissons’ optimism seem reasonable. Sure, the Avalanche were 28-11-2 in Colorado this season, but as Sadowski notes, the Predators were robust on the road with an away record of 25-9-7 in 2017-18.

Still, it’s truly resounding just how much more dangerous this Avs team becomes when they are at home.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Consider special teams, in particular.

Avalanche power play at home: 39 PPG (tied with Penguins for first in NHL), 25-percent success rate.

Avalanche power play on the road: 26 PPG (still a solid sixth in the NHL), but just 18.6%.

Avs PK at home: 10 power-play goals allowed, 91.7 percent killed (both best in the NHL).

Avs PK on the road: 35 PPGA (third-worst in the NHL), 76.3 percent killed (sixth-worst).

Those are pretty extreme splits, and you can see the difference in the output of key players. Superstar Nathan MacKinnon is an excellent example of such dynamics. While he’s fantastic overall, MacKinnon generated 67 points in just 39 home games vs. 30 points in 35 road contests during the regular season. Tyson Barrie and Mikko Rantanen also seem to enjoy a mile-high spike, and both Semyon Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier saw remarkable swings in road vs. home effectiveness.

Again, the Avalanche already gave the Predators some headaches in Games 1 and 2. In each case, they carried 1-0 leads through the first intermissions. During Game 2, they also regained the lead at 2-1 before Nashville took over.

The Predators are a deep team, so they stand a chance to mitigate that altitude factor more than a squad that would ask a top-heavy roster to carry a huge workload. This could be the time when they really lean on the luxury of having a strong second pairing of defensemen and Kyle Turris‘ dangerous second line.

Still, it could be something that really tilts things in the Avalanche’s advantage, particularly if the altitude is rough on a towering goalie such as Pekka Rinne. If nothing else, it could make the heavy underdogs look, at times, like favorites.

It’s also the type  of advantage that could make the Avalanche downright terrifying if they continue to add speedy, skilled players to a solid (yet not especially deep) foundation.

You can see if the Avalanche are able to leverage their home-ice advantage in Game 3 on NBCSN tonight. Puck drop is scheduled for 10 p.m. ET.

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.

Everyone’s still upset with NHL Department of Player Safety

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The 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs are two days old and one of the league’s greatest ongoing feuds is already starting to reach its boiling point.

No, not the Penguins and Flyers, I’m talking about everybody in the NHL vs. The Department of Player Safety.

Basically, nobody is happy.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

George Parros and his staff have had plenty of plays to examine over the past 72 hours and have already handed out one suspension, a one-game ban for Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty for his hit on William Carrier. It seems like a given that another suspension is coming on Friday when the league conducts its hearing with Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri for his reckless run at a completely defenseless Tommy Wingels.

We still do not know what is going to happen with Kadri, but the decisions the league has already made have definitely been met with some resistance.

On Friday, Doughty had a chance to speak about his suspension and seemed pretty frustrating he will not be playing on Friday night. Well, really frustrated.

“There are obviously a lot of things I want to say here, but first off, I hope Carrier’s OK. I see he’s in the lineup, he’s not injured, so he’s OK, and I never intended to hit him in the head,” Doughty said. “As far as the suspension goes, I don’t think for one second that that is suspension-worthy. On the hearing and whatnot, we came to the conclusion that I did not intend to hit the head. I did get his shoulder, and the thing we kind of didn’t agree on was that he didn’t move or alter position to make him vulnerable for the hit, which you can clearly see in the video that he plants on his right leg, going off his left, opens up his left shoulder and tries to jump to the inside, and that’s why he ends up in the middle of the ice. I don’t think it’s suspension-worthy. I think it’s B.S., really. It’s awful, and watching the games last night, I guess he’s got four or five more [suspensions] to give.

“You got to play physical. What, you want me to let that guy go to the net and get a scoring chance? I’m not going to let him do that. Like I said, I did not at all intend to hit him in the head, and I 100 percent got his shoulder first. I definitely hit the head after that, but maybe a penalty call or something like that. But a suspension, and in the playoffs? I don’t think so. Like I said, I saw four hits last night that deserve more games than that, so we’ll see what [Parros] does now.”

His coach, John Stevens, backed him up and said that Doughty defended the play exactly the way they would expect him to defend it, and that as long as he is on the earth he is going to “agree to disagree with the decision” by the league.

But the Kings aren’t the only team that is a little angry on Friday.

The Colorado Avalanche are also pretty displeased after Nashville Predators forward Ryan Johansen was not suspended for his hit on Tyson Barrie on Thursday night.

In the NHL’s view, Barrie’s head is not the principal point of contact and it was simply a body check, as opposed to the Doughty-Carrier hit where the head was the principal point of contact. That results in Doughty missing a game and Johansen being available in Game 2.

The Avalanche, naturally, disagreed with that assessment with general manager Joe Sakic calling for consistency in the league’s rulings, a common complaint and criticism when it comes to the DoPS.

Barrie also shared his thoughts, via the Denver Post:

“I didn’t see him coming at all. He kind of came from the side and he definitely caught my head. I’m not sure if they determined that he hit my shoulder or whatever it was first,” he said. “But it’s part of the game and that’s in the league’s hands so you can’t really control it. I think you move on. If those are the hits you’re allowed to take then maybe you take one or two runs at guys that you might get away with. But you just got to move on. We got a long series here and there’s not much point in dwelling on that.”

That was not the only play from Thursday’s games that received some attention.

Late in the Washington-Columbus game the Blue Jackets lost Alexander Wennberg after he was on the receiving end of a tough hit from Capitals forward Tom Wilson. Wilson was penalized on the play. Given that Columbus tied the game on the ensuing power play and then won it in overtime it was a pretty decisive play in the game and was pretty damaging to the Capitals. But it will not result in a suspension from the NHL, in part because there were no clear camera angles that could allow the NHL to determine whether or not Wilson made direct contact with Wennberg’s head.

Columbus’ Josh Anderson, who was ejected in the first period of that game (resulting in a pair of Capitals power play goals), will also avoided supplemental discipline from the NHL. Given that the NHL seems to weigh playoff games more heavily that regular season games when it comes to supplemental discipline it is not a surprising that Anderson avoided anything further. His ejection happened earlier enough in the game that it was probably deemed enough of a punishment.

When it comes to the rest of the decisions … well, there is always going to be pushback and disagreement when these decisions end up hurting a team, and it’s already been a tough, controversial week for the DoPS. That has to be mildly concerning because at this point the Penguins and Flyers have only played one game and Brad Marchand hasn’t gone full Brad Marchand yet.

The playoffs are still early, though, so there is plenty of time for everything to go completely off the rails.

Good luck everybody when it does.

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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.

Why the Johansen-for-Jones trade has become one of NHL’s best moves

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When we think of great trades we almost always seem to look for the ones where somebody ended up getting ripped off.

We frame it as a “great trade” for the team that ended up getting the better end of it. After all, it is just more fun to marvel at one team making out like bandits, completely changing the fortunes of the franchise, while laughing at the other for looking like a bunch of goobers for giving away a future MVP, or something.

But if we are being honest here the whole point of a trade is for both sides to get something out of it, and for both teams to come away thinking, “this helped us.”

There is perhaps no better example of that sort of trade than the Jan. 6, 2016 deal that saw the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators swap Ryan Johansen and Seth Jones.

A simple one-for-one trade. A “hockey trade” as they might say where two teams took players they could afford to give up and used them to fill other areas of weakness.

Try to think of a better one-for-one trade in recent NHL history.

Think back to where both teams were at the time of the deal.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The Predators were a pretty good team, but had not yet taken the big step toward being one of the NHL’s elite. They had an embarrassment of riches on defense but one of the biggest things holding them back was the lack of a true top-line center. An essential ingredient in making any team a contender.

The Blue Jackets on the other hand were still a struggling, seemingly directionless franchise that had made the playoffs just once in the previous six years and were leaning on the likes of Jack Johnson, David Savard and Ryan Murray to be their top defenders. They had a need for somebody that could be a top-pairing defenseman, move the puck, chip in offense, and play big minutes in all situations. And while Johansen was coming off two outstanding years, his long-term fit with the team seemed bleak given his unsettled contract situation.

He had clearly become a trade chip.

From the moment the trade went down it just seemed like one that made sense for everybody.

That is exactly how it has played out in the two-plus years since.

Jones, along with the arrival of Zach Werenski, has helped form one of the NHL’s best young defense pairings in the league. Over the past two years Werenski and Jones have played more than 2,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey alongside each other. During that time the Blue Jackets have controlled more than 54 percent of the total shot attempts and outscored teams by a 95-69 margin (that is plus-26). They are as good of a pairing as there is in the NHL right now, and are a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ return to the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.

On Thursday, Jones was spectacular in the Blue Jackets’ Game 1 victory over the Washington Capitals by playing over 30 minutes and sending the game to overtime with a rocket of a shot on the power play late in the third period. Both Jones and Werenski will probably get Norris Trophy consideration this season (Jones, for what it is worth, was in the top-five on my ballot).

Meanwhile, for Nashville, they were able to turn their ridiculous surplus of defenseman into the top-line center that the team had needed for years. And years and years and years.

It also says something about the depth that the Predators have accumulated on their blue line that they could trade a player as good as Jones and still have the best top-four in the league. Johansen may not be a top-line center in the sense that he is going to put 100 points on the board or score 30-goals, but there is a lot to be said for a 60-point, two-way player that can drive possession the way Johansen does.

Especially when that player is paired up with a winger like Filip Forsberg. They complement each other perfectly.

Since Johansen’s arrival in Nashville he has played mostly alongside Forsberg to help form a dynamic top-line.

In their two-and-a-half years alongside each other the Predators are a 56 percent shot attempt team and have outscored teams 79-52 during 5-on-5 play with them on the ice together. They were especially dominant in the Predators’ run to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago (57 percent Corsi and 13-4 in goals) and continued that level this season.

Johansen had an assist in Nashville’s win on Thursday over Colorado.

(The only negative to his game on Thursday was a controversial hit on Tyson Barrie, but he avoided any supplemental discipline from the league on Friday).

What makes the trade stand out even more is it came just months before two other significant one-for-one trades that completely backfired for at least one team, when Nashville swapped Shea Weber for P.K. Subban and Edmonton sent Taylor Hall to New Jersey for Adam Larsson. Those trades turned into laughers for one team (New Jersey and Nashville) and turned the others (Montreal and Edmonton) into punch lines.

Those types of trades are great to look back on in amazement as one general manager gets praised for pulling off such an amazing deal.

The Jones-for-Johansen swap is the bizarro world version of those two.

The best deals are the ones where both general managers come out looking great, and there has been perhaps no trade over the past decade that accomplished that more than the Johansen-for-Jones swap.

Both teams got exactly what they wanted and needed out of it and both are significantly better for it today.

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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.

Predators vs. Avalanche: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The Nashville Predators’ record speaks for itself — they simply have everything in place to win a Stanley Cup.

They led the league with 117 points, garnering them the Presidents’ Trophy, and had the least number of regulation losses and the best away record in the NHL. They were simply dominant during the regular season and deserve the title as Stanley Cup favorites just hours before the first puck drops to start the 2017-18 postseason.

Nashville enters the playoffs with a 53-18-11 record. They were third in the NHL in terms of goal differential at +56.

While the Preds clinched weeks ago, the Avalanche needed to do so in their last game of the regular season — a thrilling 4-1 in a win-and-in against the St. Louis Blues (which featured a very close call on an offside review that ultimately stood as a goal).

Colorado finished the season with 43-30-9, good for 95 points – lowest among the 16 teams that made the dance.

In four games between both clubs, Nashville showed their might with a 4-0-0 record (three regulation wins and one win in overtime), while managing 17 goals for and just eight against.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Nashville shouldn’t have any issues in this series. They’re healthy, have the likely Vezina winner between the pipes, two candidates for the Norris on the blue line and a forward contingent that only got more dangerous as the season wore on with the additions of Kyle Turris (via trade), Mike Fisher (who came out of retirement) and Eeli Tolvanen (who Nashville signed after this KHL postseason ended last month).

The Avalanche, despite closing out the season 2-4-1 in their last seven games, still found a way to get two points when they needed to. Sure, they’ll be riding that high and will have the benefit of having to have played several playoff-style games down the stretch, but it’s a tough ask for a team to go toe-to-toe with the best team in the NHL without their starting goalie Semyon Varlamov and top-pairing defenseman Erik Johnson, both lost for the season due to separate injuries.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Nashville: The Preds have the luxury of icing four lines that can put up points. It’s not just Filip Forsberg (26 goals, 64 points) and Viktor Arvidsson (29 goals and 61 points), the team’s top two scoring leaders. Kevin Fiala and Craig Smith finished up with 20-plus goal seasons and Scott Hartnell and Nick Bonino had 10-plus. In 5-on-5 situations, the Predators sit ninth in shot share at 51.5 percent and second in goals-for percentage at  56.7 percent. Hint: that’s good.

Colorado: Colorado’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon (39 goals, 97 points), Mikko Rantanen (29 goals, 84 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (25 goals, 62 points) combined for 36 percent of the team’s goal production this season. They were simply a force and a big reason why MacKinnon is a Hart Trophy candidate and the Avalanche are in the playoffs. That line absolutely has to produce to win, but the Avalanche need their other three lines to contribute. The analytics suggest the Avs struggle in 5-on-5 situations sitting in 27th in shot share with 47.6 percent. Even with their stacked top line, their goals-for percentage sits 15th at 52.1 percent.

Advantage: Predators. If it was top line vs. top line, Colorado would have the edge. But all four Predators lines can score, and do.

DEFENSE

Avalanche: Losing Erik Johnson for the playoffs is a massive blow, let that be known. Sure, Tyson Barrie plays a pivotal role on the backend in all three phases of the game, but Johnson isn’t a guy you can replace and his presence — 25:26 TOI per night — will be missed. Some of that extra ice time will fall to Samuel Girard. The rookie defenseman has been impressive this season and anchors the second-unit power play.

Predators: Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are a formidable duo, and then teams have to deal with P.K. Subban and Matthias Ekholm. Nashville’s defense is as stout as there is in the NHL. They can also produce: Subban had 16 goals and 59 points this season and finished in the top-10 in d-man scoring. Josi, meanwhile, was no slouch either with his 14 goals and 53 points, putting him in the top-15.

Advantage: Predators. Only the Los Angeles Kings (202) allowed fewer goals than the Predators (204).

GOALTENDING

Avalanche: This matchup would be closer with Varlamov in net, but injuries derailed that late in the season. Bernier isn’t a bad goalie by any means, but asking him to carry the Avalanche in the same way the man 200 down ice from him can is nigh impossible. Bernier’s .913 save percentage won’t move the needle, but his 19-13-3 record helped propel this team to the playoffs, and when Varlamov missed time earlier this season, Bernier won nine straight amid a mid-season 10-game winning streak for the Avs that took them from the depths of the Central Division into a playoff fight they eventually won.

Predators: Pekka Rinne. Need we say more? He’s likely the frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy this season with 42 wins, a .927 save percentage and eight shutouts. He also has one the best — if not the best — defenses playing in front of him. Rinne is one of the league’s elite.

Advantage: This one isn’t close unless Bernier goes on a heater. It’s the team with the likely Vezina winner. It’s Nashville. Both teams give up a lot of shots (both are in the lower third in the league). Advantage to the team with the guy better at stopping them.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Predators: The Preds loved trips to the penalty box – they were the most penalized team in the NHL this season, putting themselves shorthanded a whopping 299 times, 18 more than any other team. What helped them was a solid penalty kill, ranking sixth in the league at 81.9 percent. That will be crucial going forward — the penalty kill bit — but some discipline would be a welcomed addition to an already-formidable team. On the power play, the Preds finished with a respectable 21.2 percent conversion rate with the man-advantage. Subban led with way with 25 power play points while Forsberg kicked in 21 of his own.

Avalanche: The Avs were a whole seven-tenths of a percentage point better than the Predators on the power play at 21.9 percent, scoring 65 times this season. When you’re top unit consists of the same guys who play on your top line, it’s a pretty safe bet that production will happen. Rantanen led the Avs with 35 power-play points, with MacKinnon a close second with 32. Tyson Barrie, manning the point with MacKinnon, pitched in 30. The second unit got 17 points for Alexander Kerfoot and 12 from Samuel Girard. On the penalty kill, Colorado finished fourth in the league at 83.3 percent despite finishing with the ninth most number of times shorthanded.

Advantage: The numbers don’t lie — gotta give this one to the Avalanche, although it’s very close.

X-FACTORS

Avalanche: Jonathan Bernier. With Varlamov done for the season with a lower-body injury, Bernier will be looked to for stellar goaltending against one of the top goal-scoring teams in the NHL this season. Bernier put up pedestrian numbers this season backing up Varlamov but owns a career 9-4-0 record with a .917 save percentage against the Predators.

Predators: The Avs own a good power play and the Predators like to take a lot of penalties. It’s not a winning concoction if you’re the Predators, even if your penalty kill is above average. In games that will be tight from pillar to post, toning down the number of trips to the sin bin could give the Predators another advantage in the series.

PREDICTION

Nashville in four games. Nashville dominated the season series, sweeping the Avalanche. The Predators have only gotten stronger while the Avs are dealing with key injuries. This should go quick.

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

West playoffs set after Avs beat Blues

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While two Eastern Conference matchups are still up in the air, the West is settled after the Avalanche beat the St. Louis Blues 5-2 in Colorado.

More on that decisive game in a moment. First, take a look at how it shakes out:

(Central 1) Nashville Predators vs. (Second wild) Colorado Avalanche

(Central 2) Winnipeg Jets vs. (Central 3) Minnesota Wild

(Pacific 1) Vegas Golden Knights vs. (First wild) Los Angeles Kings

(Pacific 2) Anaheim Ducks vs. (Pacific 3) San Jose Sharks

Nashville won the Presidents’ Trophy, so the Predators will hold home-ice advantage as long as they are in the playoffs. The Jets – Wild matchup seemed to be in the cards for some time, while there was plenty of turbulence below Vegas in the Pacific. The Ducks won their last game of the season while the Kings and Sharks fell on Saturday.

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Schedule, Bracket, Streams and More

Out East, two intriguing playoff matchups are set. The Metropolitan Division-winning Washington Capitals will take on Columbus, the first wild card. Meanwhile, the in-state rivalry will continue for the Penguins and Flyers in the Metro’s two versus three matchup.

The Bruins and Lightning continue to vie for the Atlantic Division – and thus, the East’s eighth seed – so the Maple Leafs and Devils must wait to see who they’ll face. More on that here.

Play-in game

The Avalanche ended up winning 5-2 following a flurry of late goals (two for Colorado, one for St. Louis) with the Blues’ net empty. It ended up being closer than that score seemed, and there’s some controversy.

St. Louis has some reason to complain about Colorado’s second goal, as Tyson Barrie‘s power-play tally survived an offside review that’s more than a little bit polarizing:

The league ultimately determined that replays were inconclusive. Alex Pietrangelo was not happy after the game, as the Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford reports.

“Maybe they need some glasses in Toronto,” Pietrangelo said. ” … Maybe they’re guessing, or maybe they didn’t want us to get in the playoffs.”

With that, the Avalanche went up 2-0 6:11 into the second period, and the decision could have been even more controversial if the Blues would have failed to kill the delay of game penalty. St. Louis managed to kill it off, though.

Regardless, the game could have been very different if Colorado’s lead stayed at 1-0. Alongside Duncan Keith‘s last-second goal to cost the Blues a win, that Barrie goal stands as a painful “What if?” question for St. Louis.

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.