Hockey

The Blackhawks were leading in shots, they led in possession, they had Corey Crawford in net who’s been stellar of late…and they managed to get completely outplayed and have their asses handed to them at home. And Duncan Keith is out with a groin injury, so all around a rough day. Let’s get to it:

Box Score

Natural Stat Trick

–This game showed, in no uncertain terms, that the Hawks are not fast enough to handle elite teams. And I’m using “elite” in a very broad sense because the Avs aren’t REALLY an elite team right now because of all the injuries to their lineup. As the broadcast pointed out, they have about 5 AHL players on their roster right now and STILL managed to be faster and more skilled. It happened right out of the gate, with the Avalanche going up 2-0 less than 5 minutes into the game, and as you can see by the score, they didn’t really stop. They didn’t dominate in possession either—as Sam pointed out earlier, they’re not a possession team and they didn’t surpass a 40 CF% until the 3rd period, yet it didn’t even matter. They moved the puck up and out, burned our slow-ass defensemen time and time again, and they finished. Even Valeri Nichushkin finished. They were just better than the Hawks.

–Adding insult to injury (literally) is the fact that the Hawks only gave up 23 shots. They managed 36 themselves, and normally that would be something to celebrate—not only did they lead in shots but the Hawks gave up fewer than 4,728 in a game! But it was for nothing, as Crawford definitely did not have his best day, although the slow-ass defensemen just mentioned are more to blame than Crow. Yes, I’m always going to defend Corey Crawford and yes, he should have had a couple of those, but he was largely left hung out to dry by his teammates just watching faster players skate by them. And it wasn’t even just the defensemen. David Kampf, who normally is really reliable, let some pucks get by him at his own blue line. Patrick Kane ‘s give-a-shit meter was about -3 until late in the second and he lazily let pucks go multiple times. No one was tight defensively today. But hey, Kane’s point streak is still alive.

–And Duncan Keith apparently has a groin injury, which would explain at least partially why he got absolutely smoked a few times. (Erik Gustafsson doesn’t have this excuse, but that’s a larger problem that was in evidence today.) Obviously no one wants Keith to be hurt and it’s not going to help this lineup to have him out, seeing as he hasn’t been bad lately. But, if this does open the door to get Adam Boqvist back up here I’m going to try to focus on the glass being half full. If there is one takeaway from this game, it’s that they need faster skaters and puck movers and gee whiz where could they possibly find one?!

–Speaking of youngsters, Kirby Dach also had not-his-best-game and got stupidly demoted for it. Listen, he’s 18, he’s going to pass a few too many times, he’s going to lack confidence sometimes to shoot, and demoting him to the 4th line to center two oafs is NOT going to help that confidence or make him a better player. Meanwhile, Ryan Carpenter who is a fine bottom-sixer, should not be centering Kane and DeBrincat. Everyone had a rough afternoon. Everyone played like shit. This is no reason to fuck with the lines and ignore the basics of personnel and the talent you’re dealing with. It’s another symptom of Colliton being in over his head. My only hope is that Dach is back on the second line tomorrow and adds some fuck-you to his game so he doesn’t get demoted again while Strome is still out.

–It also should be noted that Alex DeBrincat muffed about 3 or 4 chances today. Granted, he had assists in his last couple games but he’s not scoring at the level we need. Sure, everyone was shitty today but if he had buried even one or two of those it might have been a different story.

–Erik Gustafsson had a terrible, very bad, no-good day. Two stupid-ass penalties, one of which led immediately to Cale Makar‘s goal, he got completely burned by Nichushkin on his goal, and made more turnovers than I care to count. You already know how I feel about this guy and his future on this team, so I will say no more. But he sucks.

–Speaking of guys who suck, Andrew Shaw is a useless tool. He dropped the gloves in the first once the Hawks were down 2-0, and because their first goal came sorta-kinda close to that, the broadcast was all over him with the tired, worn-out trope that a fight changes momentum and makes a team better. It does not, and it did not today. A good forecheck by Ryan Carpenter is why they scored their first goal, not Shaw’s dumbassery. And then at the end of the game he tried to fight a guy who just had plates and screws surgically implanted to put his face back together and was wearing a shield! But please, tell me again about his energy and how it helps the team.

OK, so they pulled their Jekyll & Hyde routine today and we were on the wrong side of it (was it Jekyll who was bad? Or Mr. Hyde? I can’t remember nor can I make thoughtful literary references right now). But they’ve got a chance to bring Boqvist to Denver, throw Lehner out there, and hopefully bounce back against a team that they can obviously shoot on. Or so we can hope. Onward and upward…

Line of the Night: “The Hawks having some problems in their own end.” —Pat Foley, in the most-heard refrain of the game.

Beer de jour: Good Behavior IPA, Odell Brewing

 

Hockey

vs.

RECORDS: Avalanche 13-8-2*   Hawks 10-9-5

PUCK DROP(S): 3pm Friday, 8pm Saturday

TV: NBCSN Chicago for both

BUCKWHEATS: Mile High Hockey

*Wednesday’s game not included

The Hawks will try and help you shake off the tryptophan and dealing-with-family hangover this weekend with an old school home-and-home against the Avalanche. And with it, they may get a look at what might be the class of the division now, and certainly will be before too long. Seeing as how St. Louis is in Monday, the Hawks will definitely have some idea of just how far behind they are.

No team had more preseason buzz than the Avs. Nathan MacKinnon ascended to demigod status in last year’s playoffs, they finally got Mikko Rantanen signed, made a nifty trade with Toronto that brought them back a multi-faceted (though at times dunderheaded) Nazem Kadri, and most of all it is a full season of Cale Makar. And when the Avs have been fully healthy, it’s looked very boomstick. They started the season 8-1-1, scoring 40 goals in those 10 games.

But it’s been only 5-7-1 since, and a lot of that is injuries. Rantanen and Gabriel SapsuckerFrog have been out for a while now, though Dear Rat Boy could return this weekend. Depth pieces like Matt Calvert and Nikita Zadorov and Colin Wilson and others have missed time as well, thinning out what was a deeper team than before but not exactly deep either. Those are slowly returning, but they’ll have some ground to make up.

But the Avs can’t curse the gods for their fortunes totally, either. Their PDO is right behind the Hawks’, as they’ve gotten excellent work from their goalies at even-strength, with a .935 SV% overall, third in the league. But they’ve had real problems on the kill, where they have the fourth-worst save-percentage. And looking at their metrics while shorthanded, they’re only middle of the pack in the chances they give up while killing penalties, so their goalies just have to be better.

Clearly, the story with the Avs starts with Mac K and Makar. When they’re on the ice, and they’re on the ice together a lot, the Avs are nearly unplayable. It’s two of the two most dynamic forces in the league together, and yes Makar is already rocketing up to that status in just his rookie season. He’s going to walk with the Calder Trophy at this rate, averaging a point per game from the blue line and leading the rookie scoring race by seven points barely a quarter of the season in.

Still, the rest of the roster needs some tuning, and again when they get their full lineup this will help. Nazem Kadri has not been the possession and defensive monster he was in Toronto, mostly getting domed in possession. He’ll get help when Donskoi is allowed to slot down upon Rantanen’s return. They’re still waiting for a pop from Tyson Jost, and JT Compher hasn’t gotten to play the Hawks yet and pile up 17 goals. Rantanen and ThreeYaksAndADog’s return will definitely help with the depth scoring.

Another problem for the Avs is they’re just not a great possession team overall. While trading Barrie made sense given that he’s a year from free agency, it’s left Makar as basically the only true puck-mover from the back. It’s not Erik Johnson‘s game, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be Samuel Girard‘s (THE BIG DOG IS ALWAYS RIGHT) game either, thought there’s room for growth there. They could probably use another one back there to really challenge, as right now Girard and Johnson are deployed merely as fire fighters.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t a huge headache for the Hawks, who only managed one regulation win over the Avs last year and lost the two big games against them when the playoffs were actually something worth discussing. Still, this was one of the opponents the Hawks did play even in terms of shots and chances, just didn’t get the goaltending the Avs did from Grubauer or Varlamov. That shouldn’t be a problem this time around.

It’s not like you need a big dossier on how to get past the Avs. Contain the explosive device that is MacKinnon into no more than a controlled explosion, and you’re half the way there. On Friday, Colliton will be tempted to use Toews to do that, but it should be Kampf. If you can do that it’s not a great defensive team, you just have to get past their goalies, which was a challenge for the Hawks last year. But the power play scratched on Tuesday against the Stars, and the Avs have been pretty welcoming in that spot this year too. That would help.

Huge stretch here for the Hawks, as the next four are against some of the best the league has to offer. They can’t afford too many dry stretches from here on out, even if we’re not to December yet. And get used to the Avs, as the Hawks will be seeing them four times in the next month.

So get your post-Thanksgiving shit in early, this one has a chance to be fun.

Hockey

There was an inkling last year when Cale Makar was simply toying with the strongest conference in college hockey as a sophomore that he night be something special for the Avalanche. 49 points in 41 games from the blue line for UMass is not a stat-line you see every day. It only got stronger when Makar suited up for the Avs in the playoffs and not only didn’t look out of place, but was taking shifts by the throat.

So yeah, you can probably just give him the Calder Trophy now.

Makar has amassed 25 points in his first 23 regular season NHL games, and might be the biggest reason the Avs have gone from lively upstarts to very much Western Conference favorites this season. Makar is also simply going upside the head of the competition metrically, as he’s carrying a +6.5 relative xG% rate over the rest of his Avs teammates.

The caveat, if you can call it that, is Makar has seen most of his time on the ice behind fellow tool of Galactus Nathan MacKinnon, who can puree most anyone facing him no matter whom he is on the ice with. But neither MacKinnon’s or Makar’s numbers sink terribly without the other.

Numbers probably don’t tell the whole story of Makar, as he might already be the best skater on a blue line anywhere in the league. He can simply be devastating, especially when in space and generating odd-man rushes with merely his feet. He can also do it with his passing when the lanes are bottled up. Basically, if you were curious what Paul Coffey might have looked like in the game today, this is it.

You’d think merely getting to the second round wasn’t enough to burn the first year of Makar’s entry-level deal last year, and that the Avs might come to rue that in two years. Probably not, and it’s once again due to the insane deal they got Nathan MacKinnon on that will pay him $6.5M for another three seasons after this one. So when it comes time to pay Makar, and at this pace it’ll be paying him a lot, they’ll still have two years of cheap Mac K, and their only other expensive deals are Rantanen and Erik Johnson (and not even that much in the latter case). Landeskog will need a new contract by then, but the Avs should easily be able to soak that up.

The scary thing for the Central Division is that with Makar only 21, Girard also 21, and Zadorov 24, the Avs blue line looks set for a while. Which is probably why they felt comfortable moving Tyson Barrie along a year before free agency. They’re probably even more comfortable with it seeing how things have gone in Toronto for him and the Leafs.

For now, Makar and MacKinnon on the ice together are a truly wondrous sight, at least for Avs fans. It’s pure terror for anyone facing them, and MacKinnon already proved last year that when he wants to, even in the playoffs, he can’t really be stopped. And now he’s got Makar behind him? Illegal, that should be.

We can only hope Adam Boqvist can emulate just some of this when he gets to the Hawks full-time, because it is how the game needs to be played now. Given how much speed most teams have at forward, you need Makar’s speed to make sure they’re not consistently getting in behind you. And you also need their dynamism to get through their forechecks. Sadly, you think that even if the Hawks were to get it right in the next couple years, MacKinnon and Makar are just always going to be in the way. Until they’re out of sight the other way, that is.

Hockey

J.T. Compher – Sometimes you’re not a prick, you just keep scoring against the Hawks even if you’re no damn good. Compher might be good, he might not be, but against the Hawks he’s some sort of HYDRA creation. Five games last year, four goals and five points. He hasn’t scored more against anyone else in his career than he did against the Hawks last season. He has two goals this year. He’ll probably double that total this weekend.

Nazem Kadri – Ah, here’s our prick. Maybe being out of the pressure cooker of Toronto will un-fuck his brain, but Kadri has helped torpedo a couple seasons with selfish and dirty hits that ended in suspensions. A wonderful checking center who can score, that is when his brain is turned on. But can’t help himself with being a dipshit, and the Avs can only hope that doesn’t rear its ugly head again at the absolute worst time.

Ian Cole – BAYBAY!

Hockey

There probably isn’t a team that will be checked in on Gamecenter by non-partisans more than the Colorado Avalanche. After sneaking into the playoffs and then pulling out the Flames’ organs one-by-one in alphabetical order before giving the Sharks everything they wanted, the Avs have added a genuine center and are going to have a full season of Cale Makar. But they’ve also lost Tyson Barrie, and Bowen Byram won’t get his audition until at least March or April, though likely next season. They seem poised to rise among the top of the Central. But are they?

2018-2019

38-30-14  90 points (5th in Central, out in 2nd round)

3.15 GF/G (10th)  2.98 GA/G (16th) +14 GD

50.0 CF% (13th)  49.8 xGF% (16th)

22.0 PP% (7th)  78.7 PK% (25th)

Goalies: Once again the reins will be handed to Phillip Grubauer, only this time the Avs are a little more sure of what they have. The first half of last year saw both Grubs and the now-departed Semyon Varlamov stake a claim to the job, and then hand it back about seven minutes later to the other one, and then the whole cycle would start all over again. But the second half saw Grubauer take the job by the throat and keep it. Grubs went .929 in February, .955 in March, .937 in April, and a .925 in the playoffs. It’s what the Avs had wanted from the get-go, and had they gotten it they wouldn’t have been messing around with the rabble like the Hawks until the season’s final week.

He’d better be good and healthy, because his backup is some Vaudevillian named Pavel Francouz, which is clearly a mash-up of the things the unwashed hate most to make a cartoon villain, and that’s the French and Russians. This sounds like something out of Bullwinkle. Needless to say, the Avs do not want to have to be counting on a 29-year-old journeyman with two games in the NHL for any length of time. It’s Grubauer, live without a net!

Defense: The headline here is a full season of Cale Makar, who stepped into the playoffs for the Avs and not only didn’t look out of place but ran the show at parts. He was clearly college hockey’s best player and the mind reels at what he can do behind MacKinnon’s line. Still, it’s a lot to ask for a rookie d-man to come in and dominate from jump street, so at least at the start of the season he’ll be sheltered somewhat with Golf Cart Titan Erik Johnson and others taking the more dungeon shifts.

And after the way it’s shaken out, this actually isn’t that impressive of a unit. There was a moment when they looked like they would roll with Barrie, Makar, and Byram on three different pairs to be able to push the play every minute of every game. Well, Barrie went to Toronto and Byram didn’t make the team, so now it’s only Makar as a genuine puck-mover here. That’s never been Erik Johnson’s game. Maybe Samuel Girard has more to show in that category, but it doesn’t really look like his game either.Maybe you keep Makar and Mac K separate and let the latter do it himself for the 20-25 he’s on the ice anyway. Maybe fellow neophyte Connor Timmins has it in him from a third-pairing spot? We know for sure it ain’t Ian Cole (bay-bay!).

This outfit could have had a lot of verve. Now it really doesn’t. Feels like they missed out on something here.

Forwards: But I can’t argue with the Tyson Barrie trade too much, because it brought back Nazem Kadri who is just about perfect for this team. Yes, he’s a raging penis at times who is a danger to himself and his team at his worst moments. He’s also a unique center in that he can take on the toughest assignments while still scoring 50-60 points. The Avs had nothing behind Mac K last year down the middle, and now they have one of the rare Swiss Army knives in the league.

That should leave Tyson Jost with some of the cushier shifts around, which he’ll need to produce more than the 25-odd points he got last year. They’ve also brought in Andre Burakovsky and Joonas Donskoi to try and bolster the support scoring, which they were badly in need of. Donskoi always seemed like he flattered to deceive in San Jose, and probably isn’t much more than a water-carrier. Still, they bolster the ranks.

J.T. Compher will still score 17 goals against the Hawks this year.

They’re taking a flier on Valeri Nichushkin, who just could never get quite right in Dallas but seems to have all the physical tools to be a contributor. But no goals last year is no goals last year.

As always, it’ll come down to just how much of a star destroyer the top line can be, and they just brought Mikko Rantanen back into the fold for a cool $9.25M per year (Alex DeBrincat just passed out). They were among, if not the, best lines in hockey last year and there’s no reason to think they can’t match that. MacKinnon will benefit from having Kadri around to take the other teams’ top lines on, so he could produce even more if you can believe it. As if the 99 points last year weren’t enough or something.

The Avs will remain top-heavy, but not quite as much as they were. ;

Prediction: Even with just a full year of Grubauer playing well, this team would move on from the 90 points it delivered last season. I’m skeptical of the defense but if they can find someone other than Makar to move the play, they should be fine. Otherwise they’re basically what they were last year in this spot. Kadri is a big boost, and if a youngster like Jost pops or they can shake something out of Burakovsky the Caps never could, so much the better. They could have three lines instead of one and a half. Are they ready to roll out of the West? That might be a bridge too far, but then again the West doesn’t have an overwhelming favorite anymore. And the Central has its own issues. Easily can see them at least asking questions about winning the division.

Previous Team Previews

Carolina

Columbus

New Jersey

New York Islanders

New York Rangers

Philadelphia 

Pittsburgh

Washington

Boston

Buffalo

Detroit

Florida

Montreal

Ottawa

Tampa Bay

Toronto

Arizona

Calgary

Edmonton

Los Angeles

San Jose 

Vancouver

Vegas

 

 

Hockey

As you can tell with the swing of our content over the past couple weeks, it’s hockey dead season. Training camps are still weeks away, even the prospects tournaments aren’t all that close, and everything off the ice has come to a standstill (except for Bill Guerin’s face slowly melting off his skull, apparently).

Still, there’s some intrigue, and even for Hawks fans. Except that nothing will move before camp starts likely, and maybe right on the eve of the season. And that’s in Winnipeg, and to a lesser extent Denver.

The Jets currently have Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine unsigned as restricted free agents. And though both would seem to be as important to the Jets, the atmosphere around those negotiations (if they’re even taking place) are very differently. Connor seems to want to be locked down for a good long time at a high salary, whereas the Jets and Laine seem to view things differently. Laine is coming off what was a disappointing seasons, though his disappointing season would look great to about 75% of the players in the league.

The funny thing is that even with Laine’s apparent downturn and Connor establishing himself as a top line player (at least for the Jets), their numbers the last two seasons are remarkably similar. Connor has gone 65G-58A-123P the past two seasons, and Laine is at 74G-46A-120P. And Laine has another 36-goal campaign in front of that. It’s funny how differently their contract talks are viewed by both player and team and media, when overall they’ve been the same player. It’s humorous that Connor could end up with $8M or more, while the Jets would love to lock in Laine at $6M or thereabouts and only for a couple years if possible.

Now, if the Jets are looking at such things, and I would heavily doubt they are but if it saves them money I won’t rule it out, Laine’s metrics are much worse than Connor’s last year. Whatever role that plays in talks, I leave to you.

It’s pertinent to the Hawks because Alex DeBrincat is going to find himself in this position a year from now. Top Cat’s numbers are 69G-59A-128P, which looks an awful lot like Connor’s and Laine’s, don’t they? Unless he has an injury or completely falls in the tank or some other indignity befalls him (Weather Girl-itis, let’s call it), it’s pretty easy to picture DeBrincat meeting or exceeding Laine’s three-year total. Which, because it won’t come after a disappointing and somewhat mysterious season, probably nets him more money than Laine is going to get from the Jets.

Mikko Rantanen‘s stalled talks in Denver add to this as well, though he’s got better numbers than Top Cat is probably going to be able to reach. Basically it feels like Rantanen’s number and Laine’s number will give the Hawks and DeBrincat a good bracket to find an answer within. If DeBrincat were to manage an 80-point season he’ll get up around where Rantanen is now points-wise, and should easily pass his 80 goals in three seasons (Top Cat has 69 and fuck you). So a Rantanen number might be closer to what the Hawks have to shell out than a Laine one.

As of now, the Hawks will have $20-$22 million to play with, and we know that they almost never shortchange one of their guys. Other than like Marcus Kruger, who was happy to be that for them. So it would seem $9M or so for DeBrincat is on the way, though maybe they can get him in at around $8. Still, the Hawks will have to sign at least one goalie, and hopefully Dylan Strome proves worth an investment, and that’s basically all the space the Hawks will have.

Basically, Kirby Dach is going to have to be good and in a hurry, because the Hawks are going to have to compete while he’s still cheap if at all possible.

 

 

Everything Else

Some teams leave with a wave, and some leave with a warning. That’s what the Colorado Avalanche want you to believe, and it very well may be true. It feels like they’ve been gotten this time, but will be right back here again and again in the years to come, and moving on even farther. They certainly do look poised for that given the age of all their important players and they might have the second-best player in the league in their ranks.

Then again, the Duchene-O’Reilly Era Avalanche sure looked poised for bigger things. They never won a series and they’re both on their second team since. Then there was that revival in Patrick Roy’s first year, the one that everyone told them couldn’t last. Avs fans didn’t want to hear it, we didn’t know the truth they claimed, couldn’t understand the INTANGIBLES Roy brought. They were never heard from again. I’m not saying the Avs cry “Wolf!” a lot, I’m just saying…

Sure, it could have gone on longer possibly if the Avs captain, Gabriel SapsuckerFrog, had gotten his lazy ass off to the bench sooner. Maybe a 2-2 tie spring the gremlins in the Sharks’ heads again. Then again, 15 shots in the 3rd period weren’t enough to get even, so really, where were the Avs going? Home, that’s where. The Sharks thank you for bringing Martin Jones back from the land of wind and ghosts.

So the Avs have a summer to ponder and add to a core that looks pretty tasty in MacKinnon, Rantanen, ThreeYaksAndADog, Makar, Barrie, Girard, and whatever else they might unearth. Or maybe this will be the same team it’s been the past two years, with a canyon-esque gulf between its top line and the rest of the roster. Sometimes a Colin Wilson and a J.T. Compher is just that. a Colin Wilson and a J.T. Compher.

It’ll be another season of convincing themselves Erik Johnson has anything to offer, even though he spent their first second-round series in a decade getting his head bounced around like a basketball by whatever teal-clad opponent had the pleasure of facing him. Hey look! I think Nikita Zadorov just ran out of position again to miss a hit! Sure is tough though!

There’s a ton of cap space, and other than Rantanen there aren’t a ton of must-keeps here. But $35M is just about what it costs to keep Stan Kroenke in wigs, mustache wax, and bribe funds to get him into whatever Hollywood party wouldn’t let him in. The Avs best hope is that Arsenal supporters murder him.

You forget because of the novelty of a team immediately being the league’s cream of the crop upon arriving in a new city all those years ago, but the Avs were/are well on their way to being Mountain Islanders. Four series wins in the past 16 years, no conference final appearance in 17 years. You don’t think of the Avs has basking in faded glory, probably because you don’t think of the Avs. But they were. And maybe they still will, which would be pretty funny.

It’s all there for them. The Jets and Preds are falling apart. We know the Blues will always find a way to get in their own way, even if it hasn’t happened yet this spring (and it will). But isn’t Denver built upon a society of people saying, “Eh…let’s just have a beer and then go hiking?” Don’t know where you find inspiration where everyone is content to just hang out in the back yard with their dog. And nor should you.

We’re wary of the threat, Avs. But you can only scare people with the ghosts of Sakic and Forsberg’s elbows for so long. You’re going to have to do something eventually. Trucking a fragile and short Flames roster isn’t really it. Neither is stretching a Sharks team without its captain to seven games. Better make it quick.

 

 

Everything Else

vs.

SCHEDULE

Game 1 in San Jose – Tonight, 9pm

Game 2 in San Jose – Sunday, 6:30

Game 3 in Denver – Tuesday, 9pm

Game 4 in Denver – Thursday, 9pm

This is where the Sharks are supposed to be, just not how they’re supposed to be here. It took a miracle, they somehow overcame Martin Jones, the NHL’s favorite pet, and various injuries. Do they have anything left? The Avs are here because they have the player who might be playing the best hockey in the world right now, and that their goalie was also as good as anyone. The Sharks benefitted from Marc-Andre Fleury rediscovering his 2010-2013 form. They won’t get such benefits here. Can they overcome a good goalie with less than their full compliment of scorers?

Goalies: While MacKinnon stole all the headlines, along with Mikko Rantanen, Phillip Grubauer was becoming what the Avs thought they were getting when they traded for him in the summer. He put up a .939 against the Flames, who don’t lack for snipers. He only had to work hard a couple times, but giving up 10 goals in five games is a football in the groin. Grubauer has been galactic since February 1st, and it should probably be a given at this point that he’s going to be good.

What to make of Martin Jones. Swinging wildly between really good and slapstick comedy with almost no in-between against Vegas, Jones looked to have tossed away all that the Sharks are with that poor goal from Pacioretty in the 3rd period of Game 7. The Knights’ bed-wetting saw that wasn’t the case, but it wasn’t the stirring performance the Sharks would hope they can build on. He was excellent in Games 5 and 6 when he had to be, but the Sharks can’t have any idea what they’re getting. And they’ll be seeing MacK and Rantanen, who are better scorers than anything the Knights cough up, despite what they tell you.

Defense: The Avs got a boost from the addition of Cale Makar, but this is still a teenager playing his fourth game ever. They were much better than you would have guessed against the Flames, who kept falling apart in front of them. Tyson Barrie was everywhere, and they didn’t pay for having Zadorov and Nemeth on the team. I still won’t buy Ian Cole or Erik Johnson, or Zadorov and Nemeth, but they’re here. There’s more depth they have to deal with from San Jose than Calgary, and if anyone is going to expose them, it’s the Sharks.

The Sharks would have a bigger advantage if Erik Karlsson‘s groin didn’t sound like trying to pull the rack out of an oven that’s never been cleaned right now. He’s moving maybe at 60% of his usual grace, and that’s a problem. Still, it was enough to barely outlast the speed of the Knights, and the Avs aren’t any faster. Brent Burns is a disaster waiting to happen at any moment, But that’s why you have Marc-Edouard Vlasic around. Peter DeBoer finally figured out that Brenden Dillon blows, and was actually playing Joakim Ryan in OT of Game 7. That should continue, but won’t because DeBoer has his idiotic tendencies. Again, they got through the Knights, and here they really only have one line to deal with.

Forwards: This is easy. The Avs have one line, and probably the best line left in the West, and it was more than enough to kick the Flames’ dick into the dirt. Nathan MacKinnon isn’t going to be stopped, and he’ll bring Rantanen and ThreeYaksAndADog with him. But beyond that, you can have it. Yes, they were enough against the Flames, but Colin Wilson and J.T. Compher and Matt Nieto will return to their own level. There’s a collection of nice players under the top line, but no game-breakers here. The top line just might be enough, though.

The Sharks would have a big advantage here if Joe Pavelski was going to play, and we have no idea if he will. Without him, Logan Couture lacks wingers. Sure, there’s still Hertl, Kane, Thornton, Meier, and Nyquist and a few competent bottom-sixers. They’re still deeper than the Avs without Pavelski, but that gap is monumental with him. I think it’s doubtful he shows up, but this being hockey, who can say for sure?

Prediction: Tough one. The Sharks are much deeper than the Flames, and won’t have their top center just completely go Copperfield on them like Sean Monahan did. They should, should, expose the middle and bottom pairing of the Avs, which even with Makar isn’t up to this. And with Pavelski, I’d be much more assured that happens. But Grubauer over Jones makes up for that, or most of it. The Sharks might want a rest. They won’t get one. But they’re just a better team, especially if they get a Pavelski return.

Sharks in 7. 

Everything Else

We’re getting to the business end of the 1st round, and thankfully most of the bullshit and cock-holding has started to fade a bit. Some things will get decided this weekend, so it’s time to focus on what really matters. Here’s where we stand.

Toronto vs. Boston (2-2)

You hear less moaning and whining from Toronto now that Tampa won’t be waiting in the second round after spending a week filing their nails, as we all thought would happen. Still, you can easily see a scenario where the Leafs finally vanquish the Bruins, are overjoyed with their first series win since the Model-T was in fashion, and then get atom-smashed by the Jackets in four or five games. I’m almost kind of hoping this happens.

Anyway, this series has been as close as 2-2 would suggest and neither really finding anything to exploit on the other. The Bs really kicked around the Leafs in Game 2, and the Leafs kind of did in Game 4 without getting the result. Sometimes the other guys makes 38 saves.

For the most part, whether home or road, Patrice Bergeron has been matched up with John Tavares, and has gotten just this side the better. You wouldn’t expect that to change tonight in Boston. And much the same, the Matthews-Krejci matchup has been a standstill, though if you had to bet Matthews is the slightly better bet to pop off. But where this might get decided is the Bruins bottom-six has been getting devoured possession and chance-wise by Toronto’s, and if Nazem Kadri weren’t a galactic moron he’d be odds-on to make that count instead of his replacements. Still, that’s what I’d watch for the next two or three.

Avalanche vs. Flames (Avs 3-1)

This one doesn’t take much science. The Flames don’t have an answer for Nathan MacKinnon, even though by some miracle the goaltending has essentially been equal. It’s just that Mike Smith has faced 108 shots the past two games. Giordano and Brodie are getting blistered, and I can’t talk about what’s happening to Hamonic and Hanifin without asking any children in the room to leave.

On the other side, Sean Monahan hasn’t come close to answering what MacKinnon’s line is doing, and if that continues the Flames here are toast. Bill Peters, or Pill Beters if you prefer, at home tonight has to get Backlund out against MacK every chance he gets. Yes, Backlund had a nightmare end to Game 4, but he’s still one of the best checking centers in the league and there doesn’t seem to be much option. Still, no one on the Flames is carrying an xGF% over 45% except Tkachuk. That’s a big one, that’s a bad one.

Stars vs. Predators (tied 2-2)

If you haven’t watched this one, good for you. It’s been like watching the DMV. The Stars have turned into Trotz Ultra, and the Predators don’t really have the firepower to easily get through it. They play just enough defense to usually be ok, except when they don’t bother to show up as they did in Game 4. With Bishop and Rinne, and the way the Stars play this, the margins are awfully thin and this one could easily be decided by something hitting someone’s ass and going in. Just don’t cut time out for it, you’ve got better things to do.

Blues vs. Jets (Blues lead 3-2)

It’s rare you see a team try and out-Blues the Blues, but we live in strange times. The Jets, who I’m convinced have been trying to get Paul Maurice fired since November, had it in their hands last night. Up two goals at home and the Blues really doing nothing. But because they stopped playing defense long ago in that attempt to get their coach canned, they let them back into it. Also having an aging and even more-uncaring Byfuglien out there will lead to messes on the rug, evidenced by Oskar Sundqvist walking around him like he was roped off by caution tape for the equalizer last night. Jacob Trouba seems intent on costing himself money by the day, and the Jets are a mess.

This is still the Blues though, who also had the series in their hands and then kept tossing Colton Parayko at Mark Scheifele. This has truly been the debate of Mooseylvania, where each keeps pushing the the win back toward each other.

Hurricanes vs. Capitals (2-2)

It’s funny, but basically the Canes have kicked the crap out of the Capitals for most of this series and can’t seem to solve Holtby. only Game 4 was close in terms of possession or expected goals, and the Canes carried a 57% share in that one anyway. Again, as we’ve said with the Canes for years now, as fun as they are and as much right as they do, the lack of premier firepower is costing them. With it, and this one might already be over.

Still, it’s the former champs and you’d trust Braden Holtby more than Petr Mrazek, even though Mrazek has been good for months now. The Canes have to continue to dominate possession to make up for the snipers they don’t have, stay out of the box, and they can pull the upset. Oshie is going to be a big miss here, because his kind of finishing is the difference between these teams. Without him, that difference becomes smaller. And you know Aho is going to go off in one of these games.

Sharks vs. Knights (Vegas leads 3-2)

This one’s simple enough. When the Sharks get any saves whatsoever, they win. When they don’t, they don’t. They haven’t been outclassed or dominated for any stretch here other than maybe Game 3, but in the middle three games whatever chances the Knights got went in and the Sharks were always chasing. Jones played well last night, the Sharks won relatively easily, but that was also the case in Game 1 and then he went to the zoo for three games. There’s no margin for error now. Fleury has only been ok in this series, but he’s only had to be ok. Vlasic’s return also clearly makes a difference.

You’ll know by the 1st period on Sunday if this one’s over or not. If Jones hasn’t crapped out a chicken, the Sharks have every chance to get it back to Cali for a Game 7. If he has, pack up the cats.

Everything Else

These could be the most NHL playoff-iest of the NHL playoffs. One division winner, THE division winner, was kneecapped in four games. One is trailing 3-1. The Predators laid an egg big enough last night to feed a few villages. Even the Caps are somewhat lucky to be up 2-1 on the Canes, and were just trucked to the tune of managing all of two shots in the final 40 minutes. If you love an underdog, this is for you. Even the Islanders, though the higher-seed, were probably not the bookies’ favorite heading into that series. That’s what some people love about the NHL Playoffs, though it doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. Last year, the chalk pretty much won every first round series, and arguably every second round series. Even if the Caps getting by the Penguins was a surprise simply because of history and the connotations of the two in our heads, they were the higher seed.

But still, while we can debate whether the actual results are good or prove anything at all or if they render the regular season even more meaningless than we thought, the undercurrent here is that the two results in the books and one or two others on the cards have been a result of negative, boring-ass hockey. Barry Trotz teams are successful, they are not entertaining. The Nassau Coliseum (where they come to see ’em) might make it seem like they are, but you sat through enough Predators games in the day to know. I don’t expect or want Isles fans to care. The rest of us can, though.

The Jackets aren’t quite the same bore, as they at least turned their trap up to 11 and moved it up the ice, but it was still a trap. The results were stunning and enough to convince you the process was actually lively, but believe me it wasn’t. The Stars, giving the Preds everything they want and more, are possibly playing the most boring and conservative style still left, and will happily tell you so.

It’s sports, not television, and no team is under any obligation to do anything other than what’s best for their team. That’s all their fans care. But I can care, and I do, because I’m not invested thanks to whatever it is they do on Madison St. these days.

Which is why the best series to watch, and despite all the scary undertones for Hawks fans, has been the Avalanche’s utter destruction of the Flames the past two games. Oh sure, last night’s game went to OT, and if not for Phillip Grubauer’s spot-on Cristobal Huet ’09 impression, the Flames walk out of Denver with a tied series and home-ice back. They also gave up 52 shots, 45 at even-strength. That’s betting your ass kicked. More so when it’s the second straight game they’ve surrendered 50+ shots.

And the Avs have gone the opposite way of the Isles or Jackets. They’ve just turned everyone loose, seeing a kind of slow Calgary defense beyond the top pair. And they don’t have to worry about the top pair, because Nathan MacKinnon has ground their bones to make his bread all series. Whereas the Jackets didn’t bust over 25 shots at evens until Game 4, the Avs have done it the past three games and by some distance. They have a goalie playing well, so they’re not too concerned about needing him from time to time, and have bet that if they turn up the heat on every game, the Flames can’t hang. And they haven’t been able to.

They even took their defenseman out of college, Cale Makar, and figured by replacing Samuel Girard with him they could even play faster. He played 20 minutes last night. They don’t care about his age or experience, he just helps them do what they want to do.

After a season of a jump in offense, goals, and overall fun, it stood to reason there would be a group of coaches looking to snuff that out when things got important. It’s how this always goes, and that’s not exclusive to hockey. Look at the last Super Bowl for evidence of that.

Sure, it portends to a future of the Avs pounding on whatever process the Hawks come up with in the next few years, but that’s life. Perhaps the reputations that Trotz and Tortorella have to uphold play a part, whereas Jared Bednar doesn’t have one yet. But rare is the coach who shows up in the playoffs and says, “We can go faster.” Rare is the NHL coach who has no compunction about tossing a 20-year-old into the playoffs when he was in college last week, no matter how special the prospect he is.

Mostly, Bednar has not coached out of fear of what might happen to them, but out of expectation what could happen for them. That is refreshing, and the kind of thing that should be rewarded. I may hate Vegas, and I do, but that’s a speed of series we should probably all want to catch.

Until they run into Trotz, of course.