Pavel Francouz

Blues Avalanche preview Grubauer
Getty Images

NHL on NBCSN: Can Grubauer, Avalanche get on track vs. Blues?

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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Blues, Avalanche continue to be class of West

Jake Allen of St. Louis Blues
Getty Images

Three Stars

1) Jake Allen, St. Louis Blues

Allen lost his starting job to Jordan Binnington last season, but the backup goaltender has become a critical position as load management continues to be a hot topic. Binnington took over the starting role in January and has never gone through the rigors of a full NHL season. Allen made 35 saves Wednesday as the Blues defeated the Oilers 2-1 and picked up their fourth straight victory.

2) Pavel Francouz, Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche are the hottest team in the NHL and might have a goalie controversy on their hands. Francouz has been stellar between the pipes while Grubauer missed a few games with a lower-body injury. The Czech netminder made 31 saves as the Avalanche rebounded from their first regulation loss in 10 games earlier this week. With a 9-1-1 record in the past 11 games, the Avalanche appear to be ready to fight the Blues for the Central Division title.

3) Kyle Palmieri, New Jersey Devils

With Taylor Hall gone, Palmieri has risen to the top of the Devils depth chart as their go-to scoring forward. He might be a prime chip at this year’s trade deadline with another year remaining at a manageable $4.65 million AAV. Cam Fowler refused to challenge Palmieri before the alternate captain wired a wrist shot to give the Devils a one-goal lead in their 3-1 victory over the Ducks.

Highlights of the Night

MacKinnon had two must-see moments on one goal in the second period against the Blackhawks. The way he collected the puck just outside the blueline, and then the wicked wrister that bounced off the cross-bar and in.

Brayden Schenn didn’t waste much time on this breakaway

Stat of the Night

Scores

New Jersey Devils 3, Anaheim Ducks 1
Colorado Avalanche 3, Chicago Blackhawks 1
St. Louis Blues 2, Edmonton Oilers 1

Francouz continues to impress in win over Blackhawks

goalie Pavel Francouz #39 of the Colorado Avalanche in the third period
Getty Images

Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen each scored in the Colorado Avalanche 4-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.

Pavel Francouz made 31 saves in his 10th victory and continued his impressive rookie campaign.

MacKinnon extended his point streak to six games with a pretty bar-down goal which went on to be the eventual game-winning goal.

Corey Crawford made 32 saves, but Chicago fell for the third time in four games.

Francouz continuing to push for more playing time

The Czech goalie returned to the net and the Avalanche returned to their winning ways. Francouz has made a strong push to be considered the starting goaltender with a 5-0-1 record in his past six games and a stellar 10-2-1 overall mark this season.

His calm demeanor in the crease has inspired confidence in the Avalanche skaters and allows them to play with a natural freedom on the ice. Philipp Grubauer returned from a lower-body injury and started the only regulation loss during the 9-1-1 stretch for Colorado.

Francouz has only played 15 games this season but could find himself in between the pipes when the puck drops in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Burakovsky producing

Colorado general manager Joe Sakic paid a hefty price this summer to bring in Andre Burakovsky but the talented Russian winger has fit in nicely with the Avalanche. The 24-year-old notched his 13th goal of the season with a nifty wrist shot from the top of the left circle that caught Corey Crawford off guard to give Colorado a 3-1 lead in the second period.

The Avs’ biggest roster challenge was lengthening the lineup and getting the necessary secondary scoring needed to advance in the postseason. Burakovsky has helped fill the need and is on track to surpass his career high in points and set himself up for a nice payday this summer.

Note:

Duncan Keith returned for Chicago after missing the previous nine games with a groin injury. The alternate captain recorded six shots on goal in 23:16 of ice time.

Rantanen’s goals help Avalanche defeat Flyers, extend point streak

Getty Images

Mikko Rantanen scored twice and the Colorado Avalanche extended their point streak to eight games with a 3-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Matt Calvert also scored, and Pavel Francouz made 32 saves in Colorado’s seventh win over the past eight games.

Claude Giroux scored the lone Flyers goal late in the third period and Carter Hart made 25 saves, but the Flyers fell in regulation for only the second time in the previous 10 outings (7-2-1).

Francouz provides boost between the pipes

With Avalanche starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer sidelined with a lower-body injury, Francouz made his fourth straight appearance and collected his eighth win of the season with a strong performance against the Flyers.

After a rocky showing against the Flames earlier this week which resulted in a 5-4 overtime loss, Francouz bounced back and was a steadying force in the crease. Claude Giroux ended Francouz’s shutout bid late in the third period, but the Czech goalie held off a late push from Philadelphia.

After a second-round defeat in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Avalanche have eyes on home-ice advantage in the 2020 postseason. If Francouz can provide consistent goaltending when called upon, they certainly have the star power up front to be a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.

Kadri acquisition paying early dividends

Colorado general manager Joe Sakic acquired Nazem Kadri this past summer to help the Avalanche become a deeper team with improved secondary scoring. With 21 points in 28 games this season, Kadri has added another element to Colorado’s dynamic offensive attack.

Early in the third period Wednesday, Kadri patiently waited behind the Flyers’ net until Rantanen skated into position to convert a one-timer to give Colorado a three-goal third-period lead.

The Avalanche’s top line is one of the most lethal trios in the NHL, but Colorado is that much more dangerous if Kadri continues to provide an extra boost.

Looking ahead for Flyers

The Flyers began a three-game road trip against Central Division opponents with a loss against the Avalanche, but cannot let one game ruin the momentum they have generated with strong play in recent weeks. The Flyers will travel to Minnesota and Winnipeg over the weekend and need to continue to secure points to keep pace in the Metropolitan Division.

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.

Avalanche stumble upon new hero after another startling injury

The Colorado Avalanche’s list of injuries was already pretty ridiculous, particularly for mid-November, and things got worse on Tuesday. Even so, they found a way to beat the Winnipeg Jets 4-0.

Less than a minute into the game, Jets star Mark Scheifele fell into Avs goalie Pavel Francouz, who was already taking over for an injured Philipp Grubauer. It was a hard collision, as you can see from the video above. Scheifele received a justifiable interference penalty for the exchange, and was seen apologizing.

Francouz would not return to the contest, and it’s unknown if he’ll miss additional time. If you want an indication of how much injuries are piling up even just in Colorado’s net, realize that the Avs had to call upon a fabled emergency goalie. In this case, it was Byron Spriggs.

The Avalanche would never need Byron Spriggs.

Nope, instead, Adam Werner came in cold for his first NHL start — and managed an outstanding shutout in everything but its name.

(Technically, Werner didn’t play the full contest, so he’ll have to accept that it’s a shutout only in our hearts and minds, not to mention between the Jets’ expletives.)

Werner didn’t just get propped up in a 4-0 win; he made a resounding 40 saves for that basically-it’s-a-shutout.

The Avalanche did an OK job protecting Werner from the toughest of opportunities — via Natural Stat Trick, Winnipeg’s expected goals was 2.41, with nine high-danger chances — but 40 shots on goal are 40 shots on goal. Patrik Laine fired eight SOG alone.

Now, it’s not fair to call Werner an unbeatable unknown.

The 22-year-old Swede was at least drafted, as the Avalanche selected Werner in the fifth round (131st overall) in 2016. While his AHL stats haven’t been anything to write home about, there are indications here and there that he might be more than a guy who stumbled upon a lucky night.

But … he also might be a guy who stumbled upon a lucky night. Either way, it was one great out-of-nowhere performance, and it’s easy to see why he looked so stunned after the win.

(Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Remarkable stuff, and beyond this coming out party for Adam Werner and Adam Werner Google searches, it was another reminder that Nathan MacKinnon is ridiculously explosive. Despite the Avs missing Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog (among others), the speedy center was involved in all four of Colorado’s tallies, scoring two goals and two assists.

Maybe that’s the formula for the 10-5-2 Avalanche, at least while they’re riddled with injuries: “MacKinnon being MacKinnon plus some random hero popping up out of the blue/fifth round of 2016.”

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.