Carl Soderberg

Sharks vs. Avalanche: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff preview

The San Jose Sharks entered the season as one of the serious contenders for the Stanley Cup, but they are a team with a major concern and it nearly resulted in them losing to Vegas in Round 1. That concern is goaltender Martin Jones.

Certainly Round 1 wasn’t all bad for Jones. He was solid in Game 1 and stopped an incredible 58 of 59 shots in Game 6. In between that though, he was a disaster. Vegas chased Jones out of Games 2 and 4 and beat him six times in Game 3. One of the things that stretch also demonstrated is Sharks coach Peter DeBoer’s lack of faith in backup Aaron Dell, who struggled this season. If Dell was ever going to start in a playoff game this year, it would have been after those three ugly starts by Jones. For better or worse, the Sharks will stick with Jones.

Regardless, the Sharks deserve credit for rallying. They overcame a 3-1 series deficit against Vegas and had a Game 7 that will be discussed for years to come. With San Jose down 3-0 midway through the third period, Cody Eakin crosschecked Sharks captain Joe Pavelski, resulting in a scary injury and a five-minute major to Eakin. The Sharks scored four times during that power-play en route to a 5-4 overtime victory.

Colorado’s series against Calgary was far less dramatic. Although the Flames were regarded as the heavy favorites, the Avalanche surged to get into the playoffs and weren’t slowed down by Calgary. Colorado eliminated the Flames in five games thanks to hot goaltending and two very effective scoring lines.

Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon were everything the Avalanche could have hoped for in Round 1 while on the Flames side, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan combined to score just a single goal. Colorado has emerged as a great Cinderella story, but this is a year where there have been plenty of Cinderella stories to chose from.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Schedule

Surging Players

Sharks: Erik Karlsson was unavailable for most of the last third of the season due to a groin injury, but he has excelled in the playoffs. He’s tied with Jaccob Slavin for the league lead in assists with nine and has averaged 27:15 minutes per game in the postseason. Tomas Hertl and Logan Couture were also major factors in Round 1. Each forward finished with six goals and eight points and both are entering Round 2 on a three-game goal scoring streak.

Avalanche: As mentioned above, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon did everything possible for Colorado in Round 1. With the exception of Game 1 where the Avalanche were shutout, the Flames simply couldn’t contain them. Rantanen had five goals and nine points in the five-game series while MacKinnon finished with three goals and eight points. In Rantanen’s case, he’s also on a four-game multi-point streak.

Struggling Players

Sharks: Gustav Nyquist was fine in the regular season after being acquired by the Sharks, but he was quiet in Round 1. He had no goals and three assists in the seven-game series and was held off the scoresheet in Games 6 and 7. They could certainly use more from him going forward, especially if Pavelski’s injury ends up sidelining him for a significant amount of time.

Avalanche: Colorado was led by its star forwards in Round 1, but in Round 2 the Avalanche will likely need more from their supporting cast. Carl Soderberg and Alexander Kerfoot each had just one assist against Calgary. There were only nine forwards in Round 1 that averaged at least 17 minutes and finished with no goals. Of them, only four are playing on teams that advanced to Round 2 and Colorado has two of those four forwards in Soderberg and Kerfoot.

Goaltending

Sharks: Martin Jones has been the Sharks’ main weakness this season, but it wasn’t always that way. He was a solid netminder for San Jose from 2015-16 through 2017-18, but he was horribly inconsistent in 2018-19 and finished with a 2.94 GAA and .896 save percentage in 62 starts. Among goaltenders who started in at least 40 games, only Jonathan Quick on the Western Conference-worst Los Angeles Kings finished with a lower save percentage.

The Sharks continued to lean on Jones though because Aaron Dell was even worse. Dell, who had been a solid backup in his previous two seasons, finished 2018-19 with a 3.17 GAA and .886 save percentage in 25 contests.

As mentioned in the intro, those goaltending woes extended into Round 1 and are something the Avalanche will need to exploit in Round 2.

Avalanche A hot goaltender can take you far in the playoffs and right now Philipp Grubauer is very hot indeed. He’s certainly had rough patches this season, but he’s also a big part of the reason the Avalanche were even able to make the playoffs. From Feb. 23 onward, he posted a 9-2-2 record, 1.44 GAA, and .956 save percentage in 14 contests.

Grubauer proved to be a big problem for Calgary in Round 1 too. The best the Flames did against him was in Game 1 when he allowed three goals on 31 shots. After that, Grubauer surrendered just seven goals over the final four contests, giving him a 1.90 GAA and .939 save percentage in five postseason starts this year.

He also had a chance to lead the Capitals at the start of the 2018 playoffs, but struggled out of the gate, resulting in Braden Holtby taking over in Game 2 and leading Washington the rest of the way. Grubauer has taken advantage of this second chance to show that he can be a strong playoff goaltender.

Special Teams

Sharks: San Jose had eight power-play goals in Round 1, but four of them came on that major penalty to Eakin. While it was a dramatic way to end the series, it has also skewed their power-play numbers. That said, the Sharks ranked sixth in the regular season with a 23.6% power-play success rate and they’re certainly capable of continuing to be very effect with the man advantage going forward. Their ability to kill penalties is a far bigger question mark. The Sharks were a mid-tier team in that regard in the regular season with an 80.8% success rate and their PK was heavily exploited by Vegas in Round 1. Of the teams that advanced, San Jose has the worst playoff penalty kill percentage at 72.4%.

Avalanche: Colorado was 5-for-25 on the power play in Round 1. Unsurprisingly, it was MacKinnon and Rantanen leading the charge there too. The duo combined for four of the five markers and MacKinnon got a point on all five power-play goals. In the regular season, the Avalanche ranked seventh on the power play with a 22% success rate. The Avalanche killed only 78.7% of their penalties in the regular season though, making them one of the worst teams in that regard. Colorado wasn’t any better in Round 1, killing 77.3% of their penalties. It’s looking like this is going to be a series where both squads will be able to frequently take advantage of their power-play opportunities.

X-Factor For Sharks

Not to be a broken record about it, but their goaltending. There’s just so much else to love about this team. They have both star power and depth up front. They have two Norris Trophy winners on defense. They have veterans loaded with playoff experience and plenty of reason to be hungry. The one element that’s potentially missing here is goaltending.

Jones doesn’t need to be great, he might not even need to be good. It’s hard to see the Sharks getting through without him being at least passable though. San Jose managed to just barely recover from Jones’ meltdown from Games 2-4. The Sharks might not be able to survive if he endures a similar slump going forward.

X-Factor For Avalanche

Everything beyond the Avalanche’s big three. Rantanen and MacKinnon couldn’t have been asked to do more in Round 1 and while Gabriel Landeskog wasn’t as effective as that duo, he certainly contributed too with a goal and four points in five games. The larger question is if the Avalanche have the offensive depth to go deeper into the playoffs. If the Sharks manage to shutdown the Avalanche’s stars, can the supporting cast step up?

The Avalanche don’t have a lot of offensive weapons beyond their big three, which made Soderberg and Kerfoot’s quiet first round all the more alarming. They ranked fourth and fifth respectively in Colorado’s forwards scoring race in the regular season. They’re also the only two forwards on the Avalanche that recorded at least 40 points outside of the big three.

The silver lining is that the Avalanche did get some secondary scoring from other sources in Round 1. Matt Nieto, who had 23 points in the regular season, scored two goals and four points in five playoff contests. After finishing 2018-19 with 27 points, Colin Wilson came up big in Game 5 with two goals and an assist.

Prediction

Sharks in 6. I think I’ve made it clear at this point that Jones gives me pause and there’s also the question of Pavelski’s status, which at the time of writing is still unknown. Even with that though, San Jose is far closer to the complete package than Colorado. I can certainly envision scenarios where the Avalanche win this series — especially in what is becoming the year of the upsets — but if you’re asking for what I believe is the most probable outcome, it would have to be San Jose advancing.

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info
Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1
Blue Jackets vs. Bruins
Hurricanes vs. Islanders
Blues vs. Stars

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Sabres’ Eichel, Flyers’ Voracek facing hearings after Saturday hits

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The NHL’s Department of Player Safety will be busy on Sunday.

Forwards Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres and Jakub Voracek of the Philadelphia Flyers will be asked to explain their actions in their respective games on Saturday after two massive hits.

Eichel’s came in the second period of a 3-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. He and Carl Soderberg were chasing down a loss puck in the neutral zone when Eichel took his shoulder and laid it square into Soderberg’s chin, forcing the latter to leave the game temporarily.

Eichel was given a two-minute minor for an illegal check to the head on the play, which can be seen here around the one-minute mark:

Eichel had enough, he admitted after the game.

Nikita Zadorov drilled him in the first period (a hit you can see from the beginning of the above video) after an offside whistle had already been blown.

“He hits me after they (bleeping), excuse my language, blow the whistle,” Eichel told the Buffalo News following in the game. “That’s whatever.

“I thought he was just reaching. I don’t know. I’d have to look at it, to be honest with you. I’m trying to protect myself. It’s a physical game. I think he’s going to deliver a hit to me.

“It seems like they were taking runs a little bit at times. If I’m going to be at the forefront of it, I might as well push back a little bit. I’ve got to protect myself.”

Eichel has never been suspended.

Meanwhile, Voracek will have to answer for this bit of interference he threw on New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk in their game on Saturday.

In a 5-1 game for the Flyers, Boychuk was pinching in to try and snag a loose puck heading Voracek’s way. Instead, Voracek saw Boychuk coming and dropped him with hit, forcing Boychuk from the game and resulting in a five-minute major for interference.

You can be the judge here:

Voracek was far from pleased with the call following the game.

“The explanation I got was if I hit him in the head, it would be a game [misconduct],” he told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I don’t know why I got five. I try to protect myself, to be honest, maybe the puck was a little further than I thought — I thought the puck was close to me.

“It’s a tough hit. You know, he’s getting off the ice, he’s pointing at me like it’s a WrestleMania or something. Pointing at me like it’s a WrestleMania. Come on, it’s a hockey game. … He’s the guy that was sucker-punching 19-year-old Nolan Patrick last year in the end of a game. He’s going to do that? Give me a break.”

Voracek, like Eichel, has no history.


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

Colorado Collapse: What’s eating the Avalanche?

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Typically, the U.S. Thanksgiving break serves as a solid benchmark in the NHL for which teams will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

For this year’s Colorado Avalanche, a peek at the standings on the final day of November would prove that Colorado was tied with Nashville in points atop the Central Division. But since Dec. 1, the Avalanche are 7-15-3 (17 points), which is the worst mark in the league. Here in early February, they’re on the outside looking in, two points back of Vancouver in the Western Conference wild card race, after the Canucks defeated them 5-1 on Saturday.

Here’s a deeper look at how the Avalanche problems have (ahem) snowballed:

Top Heavy

Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen make up arguably the best line in the game. Entering Colorado’s matchup with Vancouver over the weekend, the trio had combined for 199 points (79 goals, 120 assists) after all three had been named All-Stars. But head coach Jared Bednar split them up for the Canucks game, looking to spread a bit of the wealth. Alexander Kerfoot started on the top line in Landeskog’s spot along with MacKinnon and Colin Wilson, while the Avalanche captain played left wing on the second line with Carl Soderberg at center and Rantanen on right wing. It lasted less than 20 minutes, as Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen were reunited by the end of the first period after Colorado had fallen behind 2-0.

Since the start of December, Landeskog (26 points), MacKinnon (30) and Rantanen (31) have combined for 87 points. During that span, all other Colorado forwards have combined for 69 points. Outside of the big three and Soderberg – who has a career-best 17 goals this season – the Avs have struggled to produce up front. That lack of depth will make it difficult for them to turn things around and make a playoff push.

Power Play

Through Nov. 30, the Avalanche had the best power play in the league, with the man advantage clicking at a whopping 31.4 percent, or 27-for-86 in 26 games. In the following 25 games since Dec. 1, Colorado has 20 power play goals, despite 18 more power play opportunities (20-for-104). While it is unreasonable to expect that the Avs would have continued their torrid pace from earlier in the year, the dip in production on the man advantage helps explain why Colorado’s overall goals per game has slid from 3.73 through November (tied for best in the league with Tampa Bay) to 2.92 since.

Goalie Struggles

Colorado has allowed three or more goals 33 times in 51 games, so defensive structure has certainly been an issue this season. Still, the Avalanche has also failed to get big saves from either of their goaltenders. Since early December, Semyon Varlamov is 4-8-2 with an .875 save percentage and 3.54 goals against average. That save percentage is the worst among all netminders who have played at least 10 games in that span.

Philipp Grubauer – who was signed during the off-season to a three-year, $10 million deal – hasn’t been any better with a 3-5-1 record, an .878 save percentage and 3.68 goals against average during that same stretch.

After regulation

Get this, the Avs are 1-7 in overtime this season and 0-1 in shootouts. Those are precious points they’ve left on the table in a conference with playoff spots ripe for the taking.

If all of that wasn’t enough, Stan Kroenke, the owner of the Avalanche, also owns the Los Angeles Rams. On the bright side, if the Avs get just three points, they’d be back in the playoffs.

Predators’ Ryan Hartman to have hearing after illegal check to the head

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Ryan Hartman had a tough night at the office on Wednesday night and will have to answer to the NHL’s Department of Player Safety because of it.

Hartman’s hearing stems from a charging penalty he was assessed after lining up Colorado Avalanche forward Carl Soderberg‘s head with his shoulder at the 4:42 mark of the third period.

Soderberg was forced to leave the game after the play.

Earlier in the game, Hartman tried to line up Sven Andrighetto from a mile out in the second period but missed, prompting the latter to come and give Hartman some business, which included a stick below the belt to Hartman.

The Predators took Game 4 by a 3-2 margin, holding off a third-period comeback attempt from the Avalanche to take a 3-1 series lead.


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

Avalanche’s biggest question: How much will they miss Ryan O’Reilly?

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If the contract Ryan O’Reilly signed with the Buffalo Sabres is any indication, the Colorado Avalanche traded away a pretty good player this offseason.

O’Reilly’s stats are a pretty good indication, too. Still just 24 years old, he was the Avalanche’s third-leading scorer last season with 55 points in 82 games. On top of that, he killed penalties and won 53.4 percent of his faceoffs.

No wonder the Avs didn’t want to make this trade. They repeatedly stated their intention was to re-sign O’Reilly. Ultimately, however, his contract request included “numbers that we just didn’t go to,” according to GM Joe Sakic.

In return for O’Reilly, the Sabres sent the Avs defenseman Nikita Zadorov, forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and J.T. Compher, plus a draft pick. All three of those players are young, and it would be unreasonable to expect any of them to make a significant impact next season.

That’s why the Avs acquired Carl Soderberg from Boston and promptly signed him to a five-year pact worth almost $24 million. The plan is for the 29-year-old Soderberg to center Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, just like O’Reilly did.

But whether Soderberg can play to O’Reilly’s level remains to be seen. Last year with the B’s, he had 44 points in 82 games, skating mostly with Loui Eriksson and Chris Kelly. With all due respect to those two veterans, MacKinnon and Landeskog represent an upgrade in linemates. Hence, Soderberg’s excitement at signing up for the opportunity.

It’s all the other stuff O’Reilly did, beyond putting up points, that Soderberg may not be able to replace.

Said Sabres GM Tim Murray upon giving O’Reilly that big contract extension: “It’s not easy to find a player who, at his age, is already established in the league as someone who plays a complete game and makes his teammates better. When we acquired him, we viewed him as someone who could immediately improve our roster, but was still young enough to make an impact for several years to come.”

Related: Mikhail Grigorenko is looking to make the leap