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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.

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.

MacKinnon, Avs are frustrated; should they be worried?

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In the late stages of the Avs’ 5-3 loss to the Flames on Wednesday, Nathan MacKinnon lost his cool in a way that felt strangely “on-brand” for one of the NHL’s goofiest superstars.

The elite forward who tends to be the comic foil for Sidney Crosby in Tim Hortons commercials was fuming at Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, with cameras seemingly catching him saying “do your job.” Captain Gabriel Landeskog felt the need to restrain MacKinnon, which provided a moment of comic relief, as MacKinnon briefly fell off the bench.

(I giggle every time I see it.)

Top line remains top-shelf

But that comical moment shouldn’t totally steal the show, as MacKinnon has every right to be frustrated.

Much is made of Connor McDavid seemingly being on an island on an often-incompetently run Oilers team (does his current look lean “disgruntled” or merely “hockey player disheveled?”), but don’t sleep on the situation brewing in Colorado.

When you realize that the Avalanche have only won one of their last nine games (1-6-2), you might assume that there’s not much jelly left in the “asking MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Landeskog to do everything, maybe hope for great goaltending” donut. That was my assumption.

That doesn’t really hold much water, though.

MacKinnon has seven points in four January games. He extended his point streak to eight games with a goal against the Flames, giving him 66 points in 44 games, tying him with Johnny Gaudreau for third in the NHL. Rantanen has even more, as his 68 points trails only Nikita Kucherov‘s ludcrious 71.

Nate is asserting himself in various ways, including firing an Alex Ovechkin-like 4.64 shots on goal per game. He leads all NHL players with a blistering 204 SOG, with Patrick Kane ranking a distant second at 177.

When you remember that MacKinnon’s contract is downright theft ($6.3 million cap hit through 2022-23, amazingly), can you really fault him for being frustrated?

Really, maybe Bednar could be “doing his job” by finding more support behind that top line and sneakily-deadly offensive defenseman Tyson Barrie.

As PHT discussed recently, it may not be the worst idea to experiment with ways to spread the wealth. Perhaps such mad science would be deemed “messing with a good thing,” yet while Bednar’s tried Landeskog on a lower line, MacKinnon and Rantanen remain attached at the hip.

There’s a lot to like about the speedy way the Avs play, but maybe some stones remain unturned?

Beyond that, the bigger question might be: is GM Joe Sakic the one who needs to start “doing his job” to get MacKinnon and Rantanen more help?

Some perspective on their struggles

You can essentially break down this season so far into four quadrants. They started off hot at 6-1-2, only to sink to 7-6-3. After that, there was another surge, pushing them to 17-7-5, and inspiring optimism about possibly even pushing for a division title. Now they’re merely hoping to hold onto a playoff spot at 20-16-8 (48 points in 44 games). They definitely have a shot at catching the Stars (50 points in 44 games, 23 regulation/overtime wins) for the third spot in the Central, yet they must at least eye upstarts for their current spot:

Taking a look at Puck on Net’s handy stats, the Avalanche have actually been a bit better possession-wise (middle of the pack, if not top third in the league) during their recent slump than they had been before (roughly bottom third).

The difference is that their goaltending has really plummeted. During the last month, Philipp Grubauer is 2-4-1 with a lousy .876 save percentage, and Semyon Varlamov has struggled even more (1-2-2, .867). On the bright side, it’s unlikely for Colorado’s goaltending to be that bad going forward, yet let’s be honest: the Avs’ defense isn’t threatening the likes of the Predators’ and Lightning’s corps for the title of deepest and best.

Do your job

So, should Sakic consider making investments around trade deadline time?

Via Cap Friendly, you can see that the Avalanche have all of their 2019 NHL Draft picks except their fourth-rounder. The Matt Duchene trade netted them what could be a luxurious first-rounder from Ottawa, and they also have the Senators’ third-rounder.

There’s a lucid argument that maybe Sakic simply views the Avalanche as what they likely are: a work in progress. Why give up futures if you don’t think you really have a chance?

That’s fine, but who knows how often you’ll get truly world-beating work from MacKinnon and Rantanen. Yes, they’re frighteningly young for opponents (MacKinnon’s still just 23, while Rantanen is somehow only 22), but they’re setting a high bar that any duo would struggle to clear.

There’s also some Marner/Matthews logic at play for the Avalanche. Rantanen’s in the last year of his rookie deal, so he won’t be cheap for much longer. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, to take advantage of this final bargain year by rolling the dice a bit?

Imagine how scary an Avalanche team could be if they didn’t just have MacKinnon-Rantanen-Landeskog, but also some scoring balance? That’s the sort of thing that could make their opponents’ jobs quite miserable.

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.

Matthews, MacKinnon, McDavid, Ovechkin voted 2019 NHL All-Star Game captains

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Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals have been voted captains of the 2019 NHL All-Star Game.

Matthews (Atlantic), Ovechkin (Metropolitan), MacKinnon (Central), and McDavid (Pacific) will represent their divisions during the annual three-game, 3-on-3 tournament to be held at SAP Center in San Jose, Jan. 25-26. This will be the second All-Star Game appearance for Matthews, the third for both MacKinnon and McDavid, and the seventh for Ovechkin.

The four teams will be comprised of 11 players — six forwards, three defensemen and two goalies. The NHL’s Hockey Operations Department will fill out the rest of the rosters at a later date, which will likely then be followed the injury replacement announcements.

Fans elected the four players in during the Dec. 1-23 voting period. How many votes did each earn? Who else was in the running? We don’t know as the NHL did not release totals or a weekly leaderboard as they have in previous years.

The head coach with the highest points percentage in each division at the halfway point of the NHL regular season will get to work the bench in San Jose.

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Nathan MacKinnon on breakout season, hitting 40 goals (PHT Q&A)

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Nathan MacKinnon may never be the most famous hockey player from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia but coming in second to Sidney Crosby isn’t so bad. 

The Colorado Avalanche star met the Pittsburgh Penguins captain through trainer Andy O’Brien when he was 15. Through workouts back home and off-season skating, the two have become good pals. 

“We have a good thing going,” MacKinnon said. “We push each other. He makes me a lot better, he pushes me hard.”

Their friendship has resulted in a friendly rivalry and new Tim Hortons commercials every year.

As part of one the best lines in hockey this season, MacKinnon is tied for third in NHL scoring with nine goals and 18 points. One of his linemates, Gabriel Landeskog, is tied for the league lead in goals scored with 11. Mikko Rantanen? Well, he’s only the current Art Ross Trophy leader with 21 points.

That top line for the Avalanche just picked up where they left off last season that saw the 23-year-old MacKinnon get a June trip to Las Vegas as one of the three Hart Trophy finalists.

We spoke with MacKinnon earlier this season about his breakout year, playing for Jared Bednar, hitting 40 goals and more.

Enjoy.

Q. Two things happened last year. One was you exploded, and two, the Avalanche yo-yo’d back up into the playoffs. Where did the personal turnaround come from?

MACKINNON: “I just think it was experience. It was my fifth year in the league and I just feel I was ready to be an elite player and I hope I can stay there. I just tried to figure out the — I know it’s cliché — but the highs and lows, it’s a real thing. It’s a long season, there’s so many games. You can definitely ride highs and get really low as well. But I feel like I’m in the middle now, I’m not satisfied and I’m not too down on myself at the same time.”

Q. Was there something specific in your game that changed? Your skating couldn’t possibly get better, but were there other things that might have physically changed in your game?

MACKINNON: Not physically, just mentally. I just wanted to be really aggressive on the ice and I wouldn’t say take risks, but just be aggressive and assert myself in the game and stay positive. That’s pretty much it. I think my physical tools might have gotten a little bit better, but nothing drastic. 

Q. How do you insert yourself more into a game? How do you be more aggressive?

MACKINNON:  “I just think by shooting more, having more of a selfish attitude with the puck and taking it yourself. It might be throwing ahead or just being aggressive in everything you do on the ice is my mentality.”

Q. What makes Jared Bednar a good coach?

MACKINNON: “Well, he’s very personable. He’s a great dude, he’s very easy to talk to. He’s kind of the new style of coach, I think, just very relatable, a player’s coach, and lets you play. But you know he also can come down on you a little bit, but ‘Bedsy’s’ a great guy.”

Q. You were real close to 40 goals last season. Do 40 goals matter? Do you still look at these milestones or are you just playing?

MACKINNON: “I mean it’s tough. It would’ve been cool to get 40 and 100 or whatever it was, but just didn’t happen. I’d be lying, I’d love to get there one day, but I think 50’s a big milestone, not 40.”

MORE: Mikko Rantanen turning into ‘driving force’ for Avalanche

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.