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Surging Avalanche look to keep hold of playoff spot

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday night’s matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

No Gabriel Landeskog. No Mikko Rantanen. And, apparently, no problem for the Colorado Avalanche.

It seems kind of crazy that the Avalanche have strung together four straight wins and put themselves into the second wildcard in the Western Conference without two of the leading scorers. But it’s true.

Already without Landeskog because of an upper-body injury, the Avalanche compiled three Ws and then found a fourth on Saturday against the Blackhawks without Rantanen, who missed his first game of the season with his own UBI after a crushing hit earlier in the week. That’s a combined 64 goals and 157 points removed from the lineup and yet in the first game of a home-and-home, back-to-back mini-series with Chicago, the Avalanche produced a 4-2 courtesy of four different goal scorers.

Talk about stepping up at the right time.

The Avalanche have allowed just four goals across their current winning stretch thanks to Philipp Grubauer‘s play, which includes a .970 save percentage and a shutout in that span. And they’ve found scoring from the likes of Colin Wilson, who’s on a three-game point streak and Tyson Barrie, who has four goals in his past four games.

A win Saturday will keep Colorado in the playoff spot they’ve been chasing for a while now. The Arizona Coyotes, hot on their heels, are also in action on Sunday.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Two points, then, will be vital, especially when you look at what lies ahead.

The Avs will host the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday and then Arizona comes to town for what could be a pivotal game for both teams. Colorado then closes the regular season with games against St. Louis, Edmonton, Winnipeg and San Jose.

It’s a tough slog.

With the way this turtle derby has gone in the Western Conference, a loss along the line probably won’t sting that much. But there’s certainly an opportunity for a team like Colorado, who’ve found another gear, to take control of their own destiny.

Chicago, meanwhile, needs a win and then needs more wins and then needs all the help in the world if they want to qualify.

March started off so well for the Blackhawks after a five-game winning streak, but when you follow that up with three straight losses, it erases most of the good work. Chicago is six points back and a win would make things interesting, for sure.

A loss, however, likely ensures they’ll miss the playoffs for the second straight season. It’s kind of a shame, too. On Jan. 20, the Blackhawks were dead last in the NHL with 41 points. It would have been quite a story, after firing Joel Quenneville, to see them emerge from the rubble.

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Joe Micheletti (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from United Center in Chicago, Ill. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick.


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

The Buzzer: Moves like Bobby Orr

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Clinching playoffs

  • The Jets clinched a playoff spot, and in doing so, greatly improved their chances of winning the Central Division.
  • The Bruins became the second team in the East to stamp their ticket, and it sure looks like they’ll have home-ice advantage against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Saturday was very kind to the Bruins.

The latest Hurricanes celebration

For people with no sense of humor, this is just madness.

Three Stars

1. Kyle Connor, and the Jets, really

You could probably give three stars to three different Winnipeg Jets and call it a night, but that would be a disservice to a busy day in the NHL. So let’s consolidate their great performances into the number category, starting with Connor.

The soon-to-be-rich winger generated a hat trick and an assist on Saturday, helping Winnipeg dominate the Predators. Connor hit a new career-high with 32 goals thanks to this game, while his 61 points also represent a career-high. He’s now a two-time 30+ goal scorer, and pretty much two-for-two in that regard, as he only played 20 games in 2016-17.

Kevin Hayes was the other Jets player who generated four points during this game, in his case getting there with one goal and three assists. Hayes now has 52 points in 2018-19, the first time he’s crossed the 50-point barrier during his already-solid NHL career. He now has 10 points in 13 games with Winnipeg, and while he’s different stylistically from Paul Stastny, it’s possible – and scary for the rest of the NHL – that the Jets once again made a big upgrade at 2C via the trade deadline.

Hayes would jostle with Connor Hellebuyck for second star consideration, if I hadn’t copped out made the decision to consolidate the Jets into one star position.

Hellebuyck pitched a 33-save shutout against the Predators on Saturday. If you exclude a relief appearance on March 21 (where he allowed two goals on 20 shots on goal, and didn’t get a win or loss), he’s won four games in a row, and has two shutouts in consecutive starts. This hasn’t been the easiest season for Hellebuyck, yet with a .932 save percentage in March, it seems like he’s heating up at the perfect time.

2. Brendan Gallagher

Of course, by opening things up, it now means splitting hairs between other players who enjoyed great nights.

Gallagher feels like a nice catch-all, Kyle Connor-style, for the Canadiens who scored seven goals to help them earn a big win against the Minnesota Wild. Gallagher generated two goals and one assist, while both Tomas Tatar and Max Domi enjoyed one-goal, two-assist nights.

Another player who generated a noteworthy one-goal, two-assist night was Teuvo Teravainen, who helped the Hurricanes win against the Wild. thus opening up the opportunity for Carolina to roll out its “March Madness” victory celebration.

Gallagher gets the edge against those other three-pointers by managing such a volume of hard work (nine SOG) and getting the game-winning goal.

3. Alexandar Georgiev

For the second time this season, Georgiev won against the Maple Leafs while making at least 40 saves. On Feb. 10, he stopped 55 shots and only allowed one goal to beat Toronto. On Saturday. Georgiev turned aside 44 of 45 shots as the Rangers beat Toronto in overtime.

With tensions high for many regarding the Maple Leafs, losing to the Rangers will only add to the strain. But, really, the Maple Leafs played well enough. Sometimes you run into a goalie who has your number, which is maybe the case with Georgiev and the Buds.

Highlights

There were a lot of great moments during Saturday’s games, even by the standards of what is typically the busiest night of the hockey week. For the sake of your browsers, here are three that stood out, whether by being great clips or just plain fun.

To start, a fun one: Blake Coleman did something of a Bobby Orr “impression” in scoring in a shootout. The stakes were obviously monumentally lower than a Stanley Cup-deciding goal, but hey, the Coyotes would argue that it was significant, as this deals a blow to Arizona’s playoff hopes.

(Artturi Lehkonen scored a great diving goal, too.)

From a great Connor goal (the one where he faked-out P.K. Subban and beat Pekka Rinne) to some fantastic saves by Rinne, Jets versus Predators provided enough highlights to be worthy of plunking the whole thing down.

With apologies to this great dish from Dylan Larkin to Anthony Mantha for an overtime-winner, this Jared McCann goal was the most unusual of the going-backward and/or no-look moments from Saturday, and it actually had more competition from Brayden Schenn.

Ugh, both the Schenn and Mantha goals were so good, it’s tough not to have second thoughts.

Factoids

Scores

NJD 2 – ARI 1 (SO)
NYI 4 – PHI 2
COL 4 – CHI 2
OTT 4 – EDM 3 (OT)
NYR 2 – TOR 1 (OT)
MTL 7 – BUF 4
BOS 7 – FLA 3
CAR 5 – MIN 1
WPG 5 – NSH 0
STL 4 – TBL 3
PIT – DAL 2
CGY 3 – VAN 1
DET 3 – VGK 2 (OT)
LAK 4 – ANA 3 (SO)

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.

Push for the Playoffs: Predators, Jets play for first in Central

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The top spot in the NHL’s Central Division has been a back-and-forth race between the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators, and on Saturday evening the two teams will be meeting head-to-head for the final time this season in what could be a pivotal game in who ends up taking the top spot.

Winnipeg enters the day holding a two-point lead over the Predators in the standings, while also still owning a game in hand the rest of the way and the first tiebreaker (42 regulation wins for the Jets, to 38 for the Predators). All of that together makes this an absolutely massive game for both teams, but especially for the Predators if they have any hope of winning the division.

Failing to gain a point on Saturday would put them in a four-point hole, and because they don’t own the tiebreaker, would need to gain five points on the Jets to pass them over their remaining six games. That would not be an easy thing to do and would not only require a lot of help in the form of the Jets losing a handful of games down the stretch, but also leave Nashville without almost no margin for error in its remaining games.

So while it remains a huge game for both teams, it takes on even more importance for the Predators because of how much ground they would have to make up with a loss.

Even if the Predators win in regulation on Saturday, the Jets would still technically own the top spot in the Division by having played in one fewer game and also having more regulation and overtime wins.

The Jets have won two of the previous head-to-head games this season.

Elsewhere in the Western Conference, the Calgary Flames can take control of the Pacific Division with a win over the Vancouver Canucks.

Thanks to San Jose’s loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night, the Flames enter Saturday with a four-point lead in the Pacific Division race and can open that up to a six-point lead with a win.

That would not yet clinch the division, but it would be a massive cushion to have this late in the season.

The Flames have only won their division one time (the 2005-06 season) since 1994-95 and can take a big step toward claiming the Pacific on Saturday night.

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

Lightning vs. Canadiens
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Flames vs. Wild
Jets vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Blues

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Coyotes vs. Devils (1 p.m. ET)
Islanders vs. Flyers (1 p.m. ET)
Blackhawks vs. Avalanche (3 p.m. ET)
Predators vs. Jets (7 p.m. ET)
Rangers vs. Maple Leafs (7 p.m. ET)
Sabres vs. Canadiens (7 p.m. ET)
Bruins vs. Panthers (7 p.m. ET)
Wild vs. Hurricanes (7 p.m. ET)
Lightning vs. Blues (8 p.m. ET)
Penguins vs. Stars (8 p.m. ET)
Red Wings vs. Golden Knights (10 p.m. ET)
Flames vs. Canucks (10 p.m. ET)

TODAY’S CLINCHING SCENARIOS

The Bruins will clinch a playoff berth…

• If they defeat the Panthers in any fashion…

OR

• If they get one point against Florida AND the Canadiens lose to the Sabres in any fashion or defeats Buffalo in a shootout

The Winnipeg Jets will clinch a playoff berth…

• If they get at least one point against Nashville OR if any of the following occurs:

• Avalanche lose in regulation to the Blackhawks AND either the Coyotes lose in any fashion to the Devils or the Wild lose in any fashion to the Hurricanes.
• The Coyotes lose in regulation AND the Wild lose in any fashion
• The Coyotes, Avalanche and Wild each lose in any fashion

The Nashville Predators will clinch a playoff berth…

• If they defeat the Jets in regulation or overtime AND all of the following occur:

• The Coyotes lose in any fashion
• The Avalanche lose in any fashion
• The Wild lose in regulation

OR

If they defeat the Jets in a shootout AND all of the following occur:

• The Coyotes lose in regulation
• The Avalanche lose in regulation
• The Wild lose in regulation

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — 100 percent
Capitals — 100 percent
Maple Leafs — 99.9 percent
Penguins — 99.6 percent
Islanders — 99 percent
Hurricanes — 92.1 percent
Canadiens — 56.1 percent
Blue Jackets — 50.2 percent
Flyers — 3 percent
Panthers — 0.1 percent
Sabres — Out
Rangers — Out
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Flames — Clinched
Sharks — Clinched
Jets — 100 percent
Predators — 100 percent
Golden Knights — 100 percent
Blues — 100 percent
Stars — 91.2 percent
Avalanche — 40.1 percent
Coyotes — 35 percent
Wild — 25 percent
Blackhawks — 6.6 percent
Canucks — 1.1 percent
Oilers — 1 percent
Ducks — Out
Kings — Eliminated

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE

Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Red Wings — 11.5 percent
Devils — 9.5 percent
Rangers — 8.5 percent
Ducks — 7.5 percent
Sabres — 6.5 percent
Oilers — 6 percent
Canucks — 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Panthers — 3 percent
Coyotes — 2.5 percent
Avalanche — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Blue Jackets — 1 percent**

(*COL owns OTT’s 2019 first-round pick)
(**OTT owns CBJ’s 2019 first-round pick)

ART ROSS RACE

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 120 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 107 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 101 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 94 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 93 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 48 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 43 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 41 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning — 39 goals

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.

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.

The Buzzer: Price comes up big, Barbashev too

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Three stars

1. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

Even before the Columbus Blue Jackets lost to the Edmonton Oilers, Price’s 27-save shutout of the New York Islanders was huge, helping them at least keep pace if Columbus was to win.

Instead, the Edmonton Oilers did the Canadiens a solid, beating Columbus to allow the Habs to leapfrog the Blue Jackets into the second and final wildcard in the Eastern Conference.

Price has been solid over his past five starts, allowing just six goals across that span.

2. Ivan Barnashev, St. Louis Blues 

Barbashev had exactly one goal in his previous 18 games heading into Thursday’s action against the Detroit Red Wings. He now has four in his past 19.

Barbashev recorded his first career hat trick in a 5-2 win as the Blues strengthened their hold on third place in the Central Division. With the Dallas Stars losing on Thursday, the Blues moved four points clear of Dallas.

Barbashev netted the game-winner in the second period.

3. Malcolm Subban, Vegas Golden Knights

Subban never had a shutout heading into a game against the Winnipeg Jets. It’s doubtful even he thought it might come against the Central Division leaders.

But after 60 minutes and 20 shots against, Subban drew his first donut on the scoresheet.

Subban was solid, if not spectacular in a game the Jets didn’t show up to. But when called upon, he was up to the test. The Golden Knights played a solid team game, allowing just one shot on goal during two Winnipeg power plays.

Subban has started three straight now with Marc-Andre Fleury out. He’s doing just fine.

Highlights of the night

Here’s a double tap from Ben Bishop:

Marchand –> Pastrnak

Flossin’:

The Price wasn’t wrong on this save:

Factoids

Scores

Panthers 4, Coyotes 2
Bruins 5, Devils 1
Lightning 6, Hurricanes 3
Canadiens 4, Islanders 0
Blues 5, Red Wings 2
Penguins 2, Predators 1 (SO)
Flyers 3, Blackhawks 1
Avalanche 3, Stars 1
Flames 5, Senators 1
Oilers 4, Blue Jackets 1
Golden Knights 5, Jets 0
Kings 4, Sharks 2


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