Tyson Jost

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.

Avs in position to build on current success

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No matter how far the Colorado Avalanche go in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, they have all the makings of a long-term powerhouse in the Western Conference.

Assuming, of course, they don’t screw it up.

After dominating the No. 1 seed Calgary Flames and easily dismissing them in five games, the Avalanche head into Tuesday’s Game 3 against the San Jose Sharks tied in their Round 2 series, in a position to grab the upper hand thanks to a fast, skilled roster and an aggressive style of play.

Put it all together and they have been one of the most impressive teams in the playoffs so far.

It is even more impressive when you consider how much they are leaning on youth to get them to where they are.

When you look at the top-10 skaters in ice-time for the Avalanche this postseason, they have an average age of just 24 years old.  That is nearly two years younger than the top-10 players on any other team still going in the playoffs (the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders’ top-10 average is 25.8 years of age; the other seven playoff teams together average 27.2 among their top-10 most used skaters).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Of the eight teams still playing in the playoffs, none of them are relying on youth as much as the Avalanche are.

That core includes 23 year-old Nathan MacKinnon, who might be the most valuable asset in the NHL when everything is taken into account, 22-year-old Mikko Rantanen, and a pair of 20-year-old defenders in Samuel Girard and Cale Makar.

As good as all of them are right now, it is possible, if not likely, that they still have not hit their peak level of performance in the NHL. Better days should be ahead for almost all of them.

Now, you might be looking at an Avalanche team that barely snuck in the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in a watered down Western Conference and think that it is insane to look them as a long-term powerhouse. Especially with teams like Calgary, San Jose, Vegas, Winnipeg, and Nashville still lurking and not looking like they will be going away anytime soon.

It is not an unfair point to make.

But keep in mind something about this Avalanche team.

MacKinnon and Landeskog both missed at least eight games during the regular season due to injury. J.T. Compher, one of their promising young players, only played in 66 and they still have a player like Tyson Jost that has a ton of untapped potential. Girard was in his first full-year of NHL action and Makar did not play a second of regular season ice-time. The latter two players have the look of a potentially dominant defense duo if they develop as the Avalanche hope they will. They have already seen some time together in these playoffs and have yet to show their age and inexperience. If anything, they have shined and been a big part of the team’s success.

They also have the most important and most difficult pieces to acquire when it comes to building a consistent contender — top-tier, high-end, franchise players at the top of the lineup (MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog).

But it is not just what the Avalanche have on their roster right now that makes their future so bright.

It is the potential for what they can potentially add around what they have on their roster right now that makes their future so bright.

First, the Avalanche have two first-round draft picks in 2019. Their own pick, as well as the No. 4 overall pick in the draft they acquired as part of the Matt Duchene trade (which also landed them Girard).

That No. 4 pick should, if all goes according to plan, result in another high-end talent entering the organization.

Perhaps even more important than that, they also have a ton of salary cap space at their disposal this summer.

Assuming an $83 million ceiling (as it seems that it will be, or at least in that general area) the Avalanche couild have around $36 million in salary cap space this summer with only 10 roster spots to fill.

Now, a healthy portion of that space will have to go to Rantanen who will be due a new contract as a restricted free agent. But even if he ends up getting upwards of $9-10 million, that is still going to leave the Avalanche with at least $25 million in cap space. That should — should! — make them a player for just about any unrestricted free agent that is available in the NHL this summer. That is the advantage they have given themselves by getting MacKinnon and Landeskog on contracts that are, for lack of a better word, steals.

That cap space, combined with their draft assets (two first-round picks, their own second-round pick, and two third-round picks, one of which will be the first pick in the third round, again the result of the Duchene trade with Ottawa) could make them a player for any veteran that enters the trade market.

With the money they have to burn under the cap, they could realistically go after any player they wanted as long as they wanted to spend it.

The Avalanche still have a ton to play for this season and have put themselves in a position where they could really do something special if they can take care of business at home these next two games. So no one on the ice or in their front office is probably looking too far ahead. The eyes are still on the prize in front of them.

That doesn’t mean we can’t look ahead. No matter where this season ends up going, the Avalanche have put themselves in a position where they could become the team in the Western Conference as long as they make the right moves starting this summer. Obviously a lot of this depends on the development of players like Makar, Girard, Compher, Jost, and the yet-to-be-chosen No. 4 overall pick, but everything is there for them to build a championship level team. Now they just have to do it.

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.