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Surging Avalanche look to keep hold of playoff spot

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday night’s matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

No Gabriel Landeskog. No Mikko Rantanen. And, apparently, no problem for the Colorado Avalanche.

It seems kind of crazy that the Avalanche have strung together four straight wins and put themselves into the second wildcard in the Western Conference without two of the leading scorers. But it’s true.

Already without Landeskog because of an upper-body injury, the Avalanche compiled three Ws and then found a fourth on Saturday against the Blackhawks without Rantanen, who missed his first game of the season with his own UBI after a crushing hit earlier in the week. That’s a combined 64 goals and 157 points removed from the lineup and yet in the first game of a home-and-home, back-to-back mini-series with Chicago, the Avalanche produced a 4-2 courtesy of four different goal scorers.

Talk about stepping up at the right time.

The Avalanche have allowed just four goals across their current winning stretch thanks to Philipp Grubauer‘s play, which includes a .970 save percentage and a shutout in that span. And they’ve found scoring from the likes of Colin Wilson, who’s on a three-game point streak and Tyson Barrie, who has four goals in his past four games.

A win Saturday will keep Colorado in the playoff spot they’ve been chasing for a while now. The Arizona Coyotes, hot on their heels, are also in action on Sunday.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Two points, then, will be vital, especially when you look at what lies ahead.

The Avs will host the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday and then Arizona comes to town for what could be a pivotal game for both teams. Colorado then closes the regular season with games against St. Louis, Edmonton, Winnipeg and San Jose.

It’s a tough slog.

With the way this turtle derby has gone in the Western Conference, a loss along the line probably won’t sting that much. But there’s certainly an opportunity for a team like Colorado, who’ve found another gear, to take control of their own destiny.

Chicago, meanwhile, needs a win and then needs more wins and then needs all the help in the world if they want to qualify.

March started off so well for the Blackhawks after a five-game winning streak, but when you follow that up with three straight losses, it erases most of the good work. Chicago is six points back and a win would make things interesting, for sure.

A loss, however, likely ensures they’ll miss the playoffs for the second straight season. It’s kind of a shame, too. On Jan. 20, the Blackhawks were dead last in the NHL with 41 points. It would have been quite a story, after firing Joel Quenneville, to see them emerge from the rubble.

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Joe Micheletti (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from United Center in Chicago, Ill. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick.


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

MacKinnon, Grubauer leading Avs’ playoff charge

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Two weeks ago the Colorado Avalanche looked like they were done.

They were in 10th place in the Western Conference, four points out of a playoff spot, had lost four of their previous six games, and were just finding out that Gabriel Landeskog — their captain and one of their three best players — was going to be sidelined for the next four-to-six weeks.

Or in other words, most of the remaining schedule.

Given how top-heavy the Avalanche lineup has been this season with Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen carrying the bulk of the load offensively, plus how much the team had struggled over the previous few months following a white-hot start and where they were in the standings, it would have been easy to write them off entirely. No one would have blamed you if you did because in most seasons that would have probably been enough to sink them.

But this, again, is not most seasons in the Western Conference Wild Card race where nobody seems to want to claim the second spot.

Thanks to their 3-1 win over the Dallas Stars on Thursday night, their third win in a row and fourth in the past six, the Avalanche enter Friday back in a playoff position in the West, having jumped back over the Minnesota Wild and Arizona Coyotes in recent days. The Wild can move back ahead of them with a win in Washington Friday night, but the Avalanche will still have a game in hand.

[Playoff push: Wild can move back ahead on Friday night]

Overall, their situation still looks significantly better than it did just two weeks ago when they appeared to be finished.

Here is how they have done it and what still remains ahead of them. The remaining the road will not be an easy one to travel.

MacKinnon is still carrying the offense

As he has done for the past two years, MacKinnon is the engine that makes this machine run.

Overall, the numbers are just about as good as you can get in today’s NHL. He has already topped the 35-goal, 50-assist, 90-point mark for the second year in a row, and is also once again scoring at a 100-point pace over 82 games (he would have easily eclipsed the 100-point mark a year ago had he not missed eight games due to injury, and he has a darn good chance to actually do it this season given his current pace).

More recently, he has been quite literally the only forward providing any sort of consistent offense.

Since Landeskog went out of the lineup the Avalanche have only scored 15 goals in their six games. MacKinnon has scored or assisted on seven of them, while he has been on the ice for eight of them. The only forward on the team that has more than two points during this most recent stretch is Sven Andrighetto with three points. Even Rantanen only has two goals and no assists. Along with the production, MacKinnon has also been a 55 percent possession player and is averaging more than six(!) shots on goal per game. It is, quite literally, the Nathan MacKinnon show right now in Colorado when it comes to the offense.

But there is one other player that is helping him.

Philipp Grubauer is finally playing like the Avalanche hoped he would

If you are not going to have a great offense, you are going to need to keep the puck out of your own net to have any chance of winning.

The two ways to do that are with a suffocating defense, or with some outstanding goaltending (preferably both).

The Avalanche defense has not been particularly great in recent years, and still is not this season, which leaves a ton of pressure on their goalies to be great almost every night.

The Avalanche had high hopes for Grubauer when they acquired him over the summer and immediately signed him to a three-year, $10 million contract. Things did not get off to a great start for him this season as he struggled through his first 20 appearances.

Lately, though, he has finally started to play like the goalie the Avalanche were hoping he would be, and his recent contributions might be even more vital to the team’s climb back up the standings than MacKinnon’s.

He has started five of the Avalanche’s past six games and recorded a .974 save percentage during that stretch. That includes two shutouts, only one game allowing more than a single goal, zero games allowing more than two, and his 44-save effort on Thursday night against the Stars.

In his past nine appearances dating back to the end of February he has a .969 save percentage.

That level of goaltending is going to give you a chance to win a lot of hockey games. With him in net lately, the Avalanche have been able to do just that.

Head-to-head results change everything

It is not just that the Avalanche have won a few games over the past two weeks that has helped, it is also who they have beaten in some those games. There is no faster way to make up ground in the playoff race than to beat one of the teams you are chasing in regulation. Those are four-point swings in the standings, and the Avalanche have had two of them in the past two games by beating Minnesota earlier this week and then Dallas on Friday to close to within four points of the first Wild Card spot.

Those wins were huge, and they have three more massive games on the schedule coming up over the next week, including a back-to-back set with the Chicago Blackhawks this weekend.

The Blackhawks are currently four points back of the Avalanche in the standings (with a game in hand) and the results of those two games will go a long way toward determining how chaotic the playoff race remains down the stretch. Two Blackhawks wins in regulation bring them even with the Avalanche in the standings. Two regulation wins by the Avalanche would pretty much bury the Blackhawks’ chances. A clean split (no three-point games) leaves everybody right where they are.

Later in the week they play the Arizona Coyotes. Every single one of those games is going to be massive, especially when you look at the rest of their schedule around those games because it has the potential to be brutal.

Along with the three head-to-head games against Chicago (two) and Arizona, they also have to play a Vegas team that is dominating everybody it encounters right now, they have to go to St. Louis and San Jose, and then play Winnipeg at home. The only remaining game that is not against a playoff team or a team they are in direct competition with for a playoff spot is their April 2 game against Edmonton, which is the second half of a back-to-back after traveling to St. Louis.

The Avalanche deserve a lot of credit for bouncing back and playing their way back into playoff contention, but the road ahead is not going to be an easy one, and a lot of it might come down to how they handle those upcoming games against Chicago and Arizona. A lot can go right i those games … and a lot can go wrong very, very, very quickly if they can not capitalize on them.

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.

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

Push for the Playoffs: Avs look to gain ground in West race

Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

Out east, all eyes will be on the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN), but in the Western Conference, a Central Division matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars has quite of bit of playoff intrigue.

The Avs visit the Stars knowing a win could put them in a good spot. The Stars sit in the first wild-card spot on 73 points, following by the Minnesota Wild in the final playoff seed on 72 points and the Avalanche sitting on the periphery with 70 points.

Given that the Wild are in Tampa to face the nearly-unbeatable Lightning, a win for the Avs, who meet the streaking Stars — winners of their last three games — would be a huge boost to their playoff chances if Tampa can take care of business a few states over in Florida.

“For us, it’s not really pressure,” Avs forward Sven Andrighetto told the Avs’ website on Wednesday. “It’s a position we want to be in. We’re playing meaningful hockey, hockey that matters. Every single point, every game matters… to make the playoffs or not.”

IF PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Lightning vs. Canadiens
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Capitals vs. Penguins
Islanders vs. Hurricanes

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Flames vs. Wild
Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Stars
Jets vs. Blues

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Panthers at Bruins, 7 p.m. ET
Blue Jackets at Penguins, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN; live stream)
Islanders at Senators, 7:30 p.m. ET
Wild at Lightning, 7:30 p.m. ET
Sabres at Blackhawks, 8:30 p.m. ET
Avalanche at Stars, 8:30 p.m. ET
Canucks at Oilers, 9 p.m. ET
Flames at Coyotes, 9 p.m. ET
Blues at Kings 10:30 p.m. ET
Canadiens at Sharks 10:30 p.m. ET

Here are today’s Stanley Cup Playoff clinching scenarios:

The Lightning will clinch a playoff berth:
• If they defeat the Wild in any fashion AND any of the following occurs:
• The Canadiens lose in regulation at the Sharks
• The Blue Jackets lose in regulation at the Penguins (NBCSN; live stream)
• Both Montreal and Columbus lose in any fashion

OR

• If they get one point against Minnesota and both Montreal and Columbus lose in regulation.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Sports Club Stats)
Lightning – 100 percent
Bruins – 100 percent
Maple Leafs – 100 percent
Islanders – 98.6 percent
Capitals – 98 percent
Penguins – 90.6 percent
Hurricanes – 85.5 percent
Canadiens – 68.4 percent
Blue Jackets – 56 percent
Flyers – 2 percent
Sabres – 0.5 percent
Panthers – 0.5 percent
Rangers – 0 percent
Devils – 0 percent
Red Wings – 0 percent
Senators – 0 percent
WESTERN CONFERENCE
PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Sports Club Stats)
Flames – 100 percent
Sharks – 100 percent
Jets – 99.9 percent
Predators – 99.8 percent
Golden Knights – 98.4 percent
Blues – 97.2 percent
Stars 82.8 percent
Avalanche – 45.6 percent
Wild – 41.8 percent
Coyotes 28 percent
Oilers – 3.5 percent
Canucks – 2.1 percent
Blackhawks – 0.9 percent
Ducks – 0 percent
Kings – 0 percent

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Senators – 18.5 percent*
Red Wings – 13.5 percent
Kings – 11.5 percent
Devils – 9.5 percent
Ducks – 8.5 percent
Blackhawks – 7.5 percent
Canucks – 6.5 percent
Rangers – 6 percent
Oilers – 5 percent
Panthers – 3.5 percent
Sabres – 3 percent
Avalanche 2.5 percent
Coyotes – 2 percent
Flyers – 1.5 percent
Blue Jackets – 1 percent**
(*OTT’s 2019 first-round pick owned by COL)
(**CBJ’s 2019 lottery-protected first-round pick is owned by OTT. If top three, moves to 2020)

ART ROSS RACE
Nikita Kucherov, Lightning – 108 points
Patrick Kane, Blackhawks – 94 points
Connor McDavid, Oilers – 92 points
Sidney Crosby, Penguins – 86 points
Mikko Rantanen, Avalanche – 85 points
Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche – 84 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 46 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 41 goals
Patrick Kane, Blackhawks – 40 goals
John Tavares, Maple Leafs – 37 goals
Brayden Point, Lightning – 37 goals
Jeff Skinner, Sabres – 36 goals


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

Losing ground: Avalanche looking to break out of recent funk

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By Pat Graham (AP Sports Writer)

DENVER (AP) — The Colorado Avalanche could point to obvious flaws for their prolonged plunge: Erratic goaltenders, floundering special teams, inconsistent scoring from players not on their top line .

Or just go with the more direct one.

”We just haven’t played good enough,” captain Gabriel Landeskog said.

The Avalanche were tied for the most points in the Western Conference after games on Dec. 7. Two months and a 5-15-6 record later, they’re trying to get on track and climb back into playoff contention. It’s been a perplexing freefall for an Avalanche team that hasn’t won since Jan. 19.

”Everybody’s kind of taking their individual games down a couple of notches,” said Landeskog, whose team hosts Toronto on Tuesday looking to break a seven-game slide (0-4-3). ”That adds up to the team not desperate enough, not hungry enough, not fast enough, not physical enough.”

The silver lining to this grisly stretch: Colorado (22-22-11, 55 points) still sat just four points out of a playoff spot entering Monday. Any other year, the deficit probably would be even greater.

”We’re lucky,” center Nathan MacKinnon said. ”We’re lucky the West is bad this year. If we were in the East, we’d be (eight) points out. So, we’re lucky everyone’s kind of lost separately. It’s been weird. We had a great start. We were first in our division and we’ve been just losing ever since, so we’re lucky. It feels like we’re 30 points out, but we’re only (four) and we need to remind ourselves of that.”

Colorado finished a three-game trip with three straight overtime losses . Those are a valuable three points earned in defeat, but the team desperately needs wins.

”It’s been two months we’ve been losing, so if we don’t get wins we’re not happy,” said MacKinnon, whose team dropped to 1-11 in OT games this season. ”We need wins. That’s all that really matters.”

General manager Joe Sakic recently gave the reeling team a vote of confidence. Playoffs are still firmly on his mind.

”I believe in the guys in that dressing room, that we can right the ship,” Sakic said. ”I know they believe it. Right now, the confidence is a little low.”

Colorado’s role at the trade deadline on Feb. 25 could be decided over the next few games. Once potential buyers – or comfortable making no moves – the team could become sellers. One thing Sakic won’t do is mortgage the future. He said the two first-round picks are off limits, along with some of their prized prospects.

”For us, it’s got to make sense going forward,” Sakic said of a deal.

The recent struggles in net have plagued Colorado. Semyon Varlamov is 13-13-8 with a 2.91 goals-against average. Backup Philipp Grubauer hasn’t been any more steady, going 9-7-3 with a 3.47 goals-against.

”Got to get them playing with a little more confidence,” Sakic said.

The power play of late has been problematic, too. Since Dec. 8, they’re last in the league in penalty kill percentage and 21st in converting power play chances.

Colorado also is looking for more secondary scoring to help out the top line of Landeskog, MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, which has combined for 206 points.

”Obviously, everything is magnified when you lose,” MacKinnon said. ”When you win, those mistakes kind of get covered up and you don’t really see them in video or things like that. So, it’s been tough. Obviously, a lot of negativity, but we’ve played some decent games.”

Sakic remains firmly in the corner of coach Jared Bednar, who led the Avalanche back to the postseason a year ago – he was a coach of the year finalist – after going 22-56-4 in his first season.

”The problem is not coaching at all,” Sakic said. ”We have good systems.”

The skid hasn’t soured the locker room, MacKinnon said

”Some losing teams kind of turn on each other, but everyone has each other’s backs and we’re trying to win with each other,” MacKinnon said. ”We know (with) losing comes changes and we don’t want to change our team. So, the mood is still pretty good.

”I think that’s the only way to get out of it. If you hang your head and be negative, I think you’re just kind of doomed from there. So we’re still positive.”

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports