NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
About a month ago, a Blues – Avalanche game would present a battle for Central Division supremacy. As we’ve learned all too often in the turbulent NHL, a lot can change — fast.
The Blues took care of their end — and then some. While their eight-game winning streak ended on New Year’s Eve, they’re running away with the top spot in the Central and West. Their most relevant battles might instead be for the Presidents’ Trophy, and they’re rightfully perched among the league’s best during their impressive defense of that first-ever Stanley Cup championship.
Meanwhile, cracks are forming for the Avalanche.
Colorado on the edge of a crisis?
Despite injuries to Mikko Rantanen, Cale Makar, and Gabriel Landeskog, the Avalanche found ways to keep winning.
Lately, that train came to a screeching halt, even with such key players returning to action. The Avs ended 2019 with a thud, falling 7-4 to the Jets to slip to 1-4-1 over their last six games.
You can almost feel the Avs’ confidence fading.
“It feels like it’s hard to win right now,” Rantanen said following that loss to the Jets, via the Denver Post’s Mike Chambers. “We play good periods at times, but then we shoot ourselves in the leg. I think it’s in our minds. When it’s a tie game, or we’re up one or down one, we get scared that (a collapse) is going to happen again.”
That doesn’t sound like a resilient team. Really, a team that was snatching victory from defeat is now experiencing the opposite.
“We’re finding different ways to lose every night lately, and it’s frustrating,” Erik Johnson said, also via Chambers.
Goalie battle brewing?
Looking at win-loss records alone, you’d assume Philipp Grubauer has mainly been struggling recently. After all, he’s only managed a single victory since Dec. 4.
The larger truth might just be that the Avs aren’t propping Grubauer up the same way.
The deeper you drill into Grubauer’s stats, the clearer it is that he’s been just OK all season. Grubauer actually managed a better save percentage during his one-win December (.910) as he did in a 3-4-0 November (.903).
Overall, Grubauer sports a mediocre 10-9-3 record, and a middling-but-not-catastrophic .911 save percentage.
In a more anxious hockey market, you’d probably hear all about how a goalie battle should be brewing. Maybe that hypothetical nervous group of fans would have a point, too.
Pavel Francouz stepped in when Grubauer was hurt, and now it’s fair to wonder who will start each night.
Even after a tough loss to the Wild on Dec. 27, Francouz’s numbers sparkle. The 29-year-old is 11-3-1 with a splendid .927 save percentage. That tough night against Minnesota ended a four-game winning streak, and Francouz also saw the end of an impressive eight-game point streak (7-0-1).
Avalanche count on history repeating with Grubauer?
Looking at Francouz’s numbers, it’s fair to wonder why he received such scant opportunities during his career. The undrafted goalie managed strong (if not brilliant) numbers basically everywhere he went. One could validly argue that the Avs should let him run with these chances.
On the other hand, what if Grubauer repeats the narrative from last season.
Consider that Grubauer was putrid before the All-Star break last season (.891 save percentage over 21 games), only to catch on fire afterward (.948 in 16 games), closing it off with a strong playoff run.
It’s easy to see why the Avalanche weigh that experience — and, frankly, their larger financial commitment to Grubauer — more than Francouz’s superior recent play.
That said, it’s absolutely a situation to watch, and one the Avs can’t afford to ignore. The Blues won’t be shy about testing Colorado’s goalies, either.
John Forslund and Brian Boucher will call the action from Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.