Net gains: Andersen, Grubauer, Rinne stepping up in playoffs

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DENVER (AP) — This classifies as fun for Frederik Andersen: Protecting a late lead in the third period by leaping out of his net to stop a shot with the handle of his stick.

Sticky situation handled.

”Doing whatever it takes to save it,” the Toronto goaltender explained after the 3-2 win Monday over Boston. ”Fun one.”

Going into the postseason, there were some reservations concerning such goaltenders as Andersen, Philipp Grubauer of Colorado and even Pekka Rinne of Nashville. They have each responded in a big way with Andersen, Grubauer, Rinne helping stake their teams to 2-1 leads in their first-round series.

All three look to come up clutch yet again in Game 4 on Wednesday night.

Like Andersen, Rinne turned in a huge save in a 3-2 win Monday over Dallas – sliding over from his knees to stop left winger Jamie Benn‘s attempt with his left goalie pad.

”Every once in a while he makes one like that where you roll your eyes and say, ‘How did he do that?”’ Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said. ”He’s been doing that for a long time, though.”

Rinne, the reigning Vezina winner, wasn’t exactly vintage Rinne a season ago in the postseason, allowing 21 goals in a second-round series loss to Winnipeg that was extended to seven games. So far this season, Rinne has a 1.98 goals-against average against Dallas and a .936 save percentage.

Now that’s more like Rinne, who led the Predators to the Stanley Cup Final in ’17.

”Peks made a couple unbelievable saves in the third there,” Filip Forsberg said. ”It’s what the playoffs is all about.”

Andersen entered the postseason on the heels of a bad stretch to end the season, when he allowed 35 goals over his last 10 appearances.

Against Boston, he’s made 108 saves and none bigger than his stop of center David Krejci on Monday. Andersen lunged out of his net as Krejci made a move to the backhand. He kept his goalie stick close to the ice and had the puck deflect off the end.

The chants of his name by the fans only intensified.

”Playoff time, this building comes alive. It’s a special place to play,” Andersen said. ”It makes you want to play even harder.”

A year ago, Grubauer started the first two games of the Stanley Cup title run for the Washington Capitals before surrendering the net to Braden Holtby. Grubauer was dealt to Colorado in the offseason and he began as the backup to Semyon Varlamov. But Grubauer took over late and went 7-0-2 down the stretch help the Avalanche earn the No. 8 seed. He’s allowed seven goals and made 90 saves against the Flames, the top seed in the Western Conference.

”We have to be in the moment and I think we’re doing the right things right now,” Grubauer said after a 6-2 win, the second in a row for the Avs.

Holtby appreciates the grit of Grubauer.

”He’s too good of a goalie to not have success over time,” Holtby said. ”It’s great for him. Obviously he’s had an adjustment to a different situation, adversity he’s grinded through. He’s a strong guy mentally, so it doesn’t come as a surprise to any of us.”

BOSTON at TORONTO (7 p.m. EDT, NBCSN)

Boston forward Patrice Bergeron remains confident his line will crank up the production.

Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand have combined for three goals in three games against the Maple Leafs after a regular season in which they had 106. One of the reasons is the defensive work of Toronto’s offensive line of John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman.

”It’s tight right now. There’s not much space,” Bergeron said. ”We believe in ourselves and know we’re playing a good team and a good line.”

NASHVILLE at DALLAS (8 p.m. EDT, USA)

At 5-foot-6, Predators center Rocco Grimaldi is one of the shortest players in the NHL. He’s certainly coming up big in this series, scoring in consecutive games.

After going into the lineup for Game 2 – filling in when 6-6 center Brian Boyle had an appendix issue following Game 1 – Grimaldi had his first career playoff goal Saturday with a stick coincidentally named ”Frankie” – on the three-year anniversary of the death of his grandfather Frank. He added another goal, with a different stick, in Game 3.

CALGARY at COLORADO (10 p.m. EDT, NBCSN)

The Flames watched film as a group in lieu of practice Tuesday. Among the topics discussed was getting back to playing the way they played in amassing a Western Conference-best 107 points. Johnny Gaudreau has been held in check, with just one assist in the series. He had 99 points in the regular season.

”Everyone’s got to be better, not just one guy,” Gaudreau said. ”All of us are going to be better next game.”

Calgary is searching for a way to slow down MacKinnon, who has three goals, including an OT winner in Game 2.

”We’re going to have to make sure we eliminate some of that ice he’s had available through three games,” Flames coach Bill Peters said.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno and AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins contributed to this report.

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

Mike Smith unlikely hero as Flames shutout Avalanche in Game 1

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Mike Smith certainly didn’t start this season on a positive note and while he did improve as the campaign went on, goaltending was still a big question mark for Calgary going into the series. Few would have predicted that Smith would end up being the standout in this battle between two high-powered offenses, but that was the case in the Flames’ 4-0 victory over the Avalanche.

Philipp Grubauer, who also had a poor start to the season before bouncing back, did hold up for most of the game. He couldn’t save the Avalanche Thursday night, but he kept them in this one despite the lopsided final score. It wasn’t until late in the second period that the Flames first solved him.

Continuing with the theme of Game 1 defying expectations, rather than one of the Flames’ many offensive stars netting the goal, it was Andrew Mangiapane, who has just eight career goals and was making his postseason debut. For a moment, he looked like an elite forward, weaving through the Avalanche and outmaneuvering Grubauer before finishing him with a backhand.

Late in the second period, Matthew Tkachuk capitalized on a power-play opportunity to score his first career playoff goal. That 2-0 edge would hold for most of what remained until the floodgates opened late. Mikael Backlund added another power-play goal at 17:01 of the third period then just 14 seconds later, Tkachuk scored again to make it 4-0.

Colorado was the clear underdog going into this series, so from that perspective this outcome wasn’t surprising even if how we got to it did deviate from the script. At the same time, the Avalanche couldn’t be discounted and still shouldn’t be. Any team headlined by Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen has the potential to be very dangerous and the Flames know full well that their work is far from done.

Avalanche-Flames Game 2 from Scotiabank Saddledome will be Saturday night at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Grubauer could carry Avs, if playoff history doesn’t repeat

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Philipp Grubauer is a Stanley Cup champion, but you can’t blame him if he doesn’t really feel that way.

Grubauer wrestled the Washington Capitals’ starting job away from Braden Holtby with a superior 2017-18 regular season, but things fell apart to start Washington’s Round 1 series. The Columbus Blue Jackets stormed off to a 2-0 series lead, and with Grubauer allowing four goals in each of those losses, the Capitals turned to Holtby. And the rest (including Grubauer’s time with the Capitals) is history.

Grubauer admitted that “last year was tough” to NHL.com’s Rick Sadowski, yet he also explained his resiliency to the Denver Post’s Kyle Frederickson, whether that boiled down to earlier career struggles, the mixed feelings of being left behind during that Capitals run, or his bumpy start as a goalie with the Avs.

“You can fall in a hole and get really miserable,” Grubauer said, “or be positive and wake yourself up.”

And, goodness, did Grubauer ever wake himself up down the stretch.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

After playing at a below-backup level in his first 21 games (a putrid .891 save percentage) of 2018-19, Grubauer was splendid after the All-Star break, sporting a tremendous .948 save percentage over those 16 games.

That was absolutely crucial, too, as Semyon Varlamov struggled with injuries and inconsistency, while the top line couldn’t drag the Avs to the same number of wins, what with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen both being hurt at times, and Nathan MacKinnon falling in frustration. Grubauer wasn’t the MVP for the Avalanche all season long, but they wouldn’t have barely outlasted the Coyotes for the West’s final playoff spot without him.

And his teammates know it.

“Gruby has been unreal,” MacKinnon said, via the Denver Post. “He’s been our best player the last 20 games. We’re very fortunate he’s been so good because you can’t ask that much of a goaltender.”

If you need visual evidence, feast your eyes upon this outstanding save against Blake Wheeler from late in that postseason push:

It’s fair to question if Landeskog and especially Rantanen will be their usual selves during Game 1 on Thursday at 10 p.m. ET (NBCSN; live stream), or during much of this Round 1 series, in general. Even if they are their usual dominant selves, the Flames boast two lines that could bring almost as much, if not more, to the table than Colorado’s top guns.

Yet, with Mike Smith serving as the Flames’ Game 1 starter despite struggling to the point that people wonder if he might torpedo Calgary’s chances, Colorado’s best hopes likely lie with Grubauer vastly outplaying Smith. That’s especially true if the two teams’ possession trends continue into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Still, Grubauer has only appeared in four playoff games during his career, suffering through an .835 save percentage and winning just one of those contests. That’s a tiny sample size, and one that’s spread out over three different postseason runs, but the bottom line is that people can be unforgiving when it comes to playoff stumbles, and the Flames could rank as a very unforgiving opponent.

Grubauer made the difference to the Avalanche squeezing into this postseason, and we should expect Colorado to lean on him just as heavily against the flammable Flames’ attack.

Avalanche – Flames Game 1 from the Scotiabank Saddledome will happen Thursday night at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Here is the livestream link.

For more on these two teams, check out the series preview. Get a rundown of Thursday’s full slate of Game 1 action with The Wraparound.

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.

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.