Nikita Zadorov

Penguins remain hot with win vs. Avalanche

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Brandon Tanev notched a shorthanded goal in overtime to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel also scored as Pittsburgh recorded its fourth straight victory. Matt Murray added 26 saves.

Matt Calvert and Nathan MacKinnon found the back of the net for the Avalanche but their six-game point streak to open the season came to an end.

Crosby continues to dazzle

The Penguins captain has clearly moved on from a disappointing playoff run last year, which ended in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Islanders. Instead, Crosby is off to a tremendous start, recording points in each of Pittsburgh’s seven games and leading the club on the ice to a 5-2-0 record.

Crosby netted a highlight-reel backhander to tie the game late in the first period and then assisted on a Jake Guentzel tally in the second.

The superstar center craftily tipped the puck around Erik Johnson, played the puck with his glove, and then somehow had the wherewithal to outlast goaltender Philipp Grubauer until an opening appeared for him to slide a backhander into the net.

Early in the second period, Crosby intercepted a pass at the blueline, then set up Guentzel to help the Penguins grab a 2-1 lead.

While several notable players remain sidelined, Crosby will be expected to lead the Penguins on the ice, and continue to improve the players around him. Pittsburgh will need Crosby to play at the top of his game until reinforcements return over the next few weeks.

Avalanche upcoming free agents

After the Mikko Rantanen contract issue this past summer, the Avalanche have several pending RFA’s for next summer.

Colorado is expected to be a legit Stanley Cup Contender with a great mix of dynamic playmakers, infusion of youth and seasoned veterans capable of leading the way during turbulent stretches.

However, Bob McKenzie offered that general manager Joe Sakic wants to see how the first part of the season plays out before engaging in contract talks.

Andre Burakovsky, Tyson Jost and Nikita Zadorov headline the pending RFA class and all presumably have a role to fill moving forward.

Is Lafferty here to stay?

The Penguins have been bitten by the injury bug early and have been forced to rely on their organizational depth to stay afloat during a challenging stretch.

During their Stanley Cup-winning years, the Penguins have always been able to call up a role player to fill a specific need. Is Sam Lafferty the next player to seamlessly fit in?

Lafferty was close to making the team out of training camp according to Bob McKenzie, but fell victim to the numbers game of a roster. However, injuries to five impact forwards — Evgeni Malkin, Nick Bjugstad, Alex Galchenyuk, Bryan Rust and Jared McCann — created a roster spot for him to slide in.

“We always felt like Sam was close coming into this training camp this year. But I think he has a whole lot more confidence in himself that he belongs here,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “And that’s great for him, and that’s great for us.”

The 24-year-old originally from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, about two hours outside of Pittsburgh, Lafferty has taken advantage of the opportunity recording five points over the previous three games.

“He’s earned his playing time. He’s just playing terrific hockey,” Sullivan said. “He made a difference every game he’s been in. As a result, he’s getting more ice time. He’s a very good penalty-killer. I think he really understands his role and is taking pride in it. You can see it every shift. He’s gaining more confidence.”

The Penguins have done an excellent job in sliding players into appropriate roles, and Lafferty is just the latest example. Does the kid have what it takes to stick around for a full season and continue to make a difference? We will find out as the season goes on.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Cale Makar off to strong start for Avalanche

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It’s still incredibly early, but the verdict on rookie Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar is so far, so good.

That’s promising for the Avs because, frankly, they made a pretty big gamble on Makar’s development. While you can’t chalk up the Avalanche trading away Tyson Barrie during the offseason to betting on Makar alone — the team certainly had Barrie’s contract year in mind — it was pretty clear that the team’s surplus of young defensemen (from Makar to Bowen Byram and Conor Timmins) made it possible to move Barrie.

Through the first three regular-season games of Makar’s NHL career, the fourth overall pick of the 2017 NHL Draft has an assist in each contest, all wins for the Avalanche. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a productive continuation of his head-turning debut during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when Makar generated six points in 10 postseason contests.

Let’s dig a little deeper on the first three regular-season games for Makar, who is about turn 21 on Oct. 30.

Minor nitpicking

If you want to get greedy, there are a few “yeah, but …” points you can make, even though the big picture remains very, very promising.

To start, Makar’s three assists were all secondary ones on the power play, and he wasn’t the driving force of any of the goals. That’s abundantly clear here and here, with Makar’s biggest impact coming on this Mikko Rantanen power-play goal, as Makar made a nice move and pass to earn space for Nathan MacKinnon, who made an absolutely ridiculous pass to Rantanen:

(Seriously, that MacKinnon pass.)

It’s fair to mention that the Avalanche – wisely – have deployed Makar in very beneficial ways. Makar’s averaged a team-leading 5:11 power play TOI per game of his 19:17 TOI per game through three contests. Thanks to that heavy power play deployment, the Avalanche has scored five goals and only allowed one while Makar’s been on the ice.

Promising work nonetheless

As I mentioned before, you have to get pretty granular to criticize a rookie who’s been a point-per-game player out of the gate. Overall, Makar’s been promising.

Via Natural Stat Trick, Makar’s been more or less breaking even at five-on-five, with Colorado scoring twice and allowing one goal when he’s been on the ice at even-strength. If Makar can keep that up, while playing with a solid-but-unspectacular partner in Nikita Zadorov, that would be fantastic for an Avalanche team trying to live up to escalating expectations.

Again, the overall progress report is so far, so good.

You can watch Makar and the Avalanche take on the Penguins on Wednesday Night Hockey on Oct. 16. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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.

Lucic punches Avs’ Zadorov in Flames debut

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The James NealMilan Lucic trade is still a little hard to believe, but it did in fact happen. While Neal had a quiet debut in the Edmonton Oilers’ narrow win on Wednesday, Lucic made an impact in the Calgary Flames’ season-opener against the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday.

You won’t find a consensus about Lucic having a positive impact, though.

After Avalanche defenseman Nikita Zadorov delivered a hard hit on Austin Czarnik, Lucic confronted Zadorov. During the exchange, Lucic punched Zadorov, who didn’t seem to see it coming.

Was it a “sucker punch?” Was Lucic merely sticking up for his teammate? Maybe it was something in between?

Either way, Lucic was whistled with a fighting major, instigator penalty, and a misconduct. Zadorov was somewhat strangely given a fighting major and a boarding penalty.

One can debate the “deterrent” factor of a player like Lucic all day, but ultimately it really is that: a subjective discussion.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

J.T. Compher scores twice as Avalanche down Wild 5-1

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The Colorado Avalanche kept their playoff train chugging along nicely on Tuesday.

Sitting in the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference heading into the game, the Avalanche received some help from the Montreal Canadiens via a 4-2 win over the Dallas Stars, and kept up their end of the bargain with a 5-1 win away to the Minnesota Wild to leapfrog the Stars into the first wildcard spot — three points behind the Wild for third place in the Central Division.

The Avs are a healthy 5-0-3 in their past eight games.

While Nathan MacKinnon has been doing much of the heavy lifting to position himself favorably in the Hart Trophy conversation, it was J.T. Compher who took a bit of that load off on Tuesday.

Compher got the ball rolling for the Avalanche, scoring on a nice wrist shot that beat Dubnyk high in the first period.

Colorado’s lead would last well into the second period before Mikko Koivu converted on a odd-man rush to bring the Wild level.

Minnesota — who lost 7-1 the last time these two teams met — came into the game 3-1-0 in their past four, and with the Winnipeg Jets falling 3-1 to the Nashville Predators earlier in the night, the Wild had a chance to close the gap on second place in the division to five points.

But 59 seconds after Koivu notched his 13th, Nikita Zadorov crushed a one-timer from the slot past Dubnyk to restore the 2-1 lead.

Nathan MacKinnon entered the game on an eight-game heater and pushed that number to nine games 11 seconds into the third period to double Colorado’s advantage.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 17 points during his streak and 18 goals and 42 points in his past 25 games.

Compher’s second of the night came in the second half of the third period, a goal that was challenged for goaltender interference but upheld after the review.


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

Looking to make the leap: Mirco Mueller

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Like most things in San Jose last year, Mirco Mueller’s progression didn’t go exactly to plan.

Mueller, the 20-year-old blueliner San Jose took 18th overall in 2013, started out the year in the NHL as part of GM Doug Wilson’s “tomorrow team” movement, only to see his ice time dwindle by early December.

From there, he was loaned to Team Switzerland for the World Juniors and, upon returning, was shuffled back and forth between San Jose and the club’s AHL affiliate in Worcester, before a thumb injury in late March ended his year.

All told, Mueller appeared in just 39 games for the Sharks, three for Worcester and six for Switzerland — not a ton of hockey for a youngster that needs all the reps he can get.

Which begs the question — where will he get them this year?

On paper, Mueller appears to be part of the club’s six-man defensive unit, along with Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, Brenden Dillon and newly acquired Paul Martin. But the Swiss rearguard will have some pretty heady competition for that spot, particularly in the form of Matt Tennyson, who appeared in a career-high 27 games last year, and Dylan DeMelo,  a 22-year-old prospect who, according to AHL bench boss Roy Sommer, is ready to make the leap himself.

Speaking of the American League, it could end up being the place where Mueller starts this season.

There were worries San Jose rushed him to the NHL last year and it’s important to remember that, of all the d-men taken in the first round in ’13, only Seth Jones and Rasmus Ristolainen have emerged as regulars; some have argued that Nikita Zadorov, taken two spots ahead of Mueller, was also rushed to the NHL (and has since been traded to Colorado).

What’s more, the likes of Philly’s Samuel Morin (No. 11), Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey (No. 13) and the Islanders’ Ryan Pulock (No. 15) have yet to even make their big-league debuts.

Mueller knows that, based on his age and number of players looking to stick with the Sharks, this fall’s training camp will go a long way in deciding his fate.

And he knows the challenge will be difficult.

 “It’s always competitive,” he said, per the San Jose Mercury News. “A lot of jobs are on the line.”