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 vs. 

RECORDS: Avalanche 39-25-8   Hawks 30-34-9

PUCK DROP: 7:30

TV: NBCSN Chicago

REAL MEN OUT OF SNOW: Mile High Hockey

The Hawks will get some say in the bottom of the Western Conference race, or in that they can decide who they’ll gift two points in that race on most nights and greatly anger someone somewhere. Sunday they blew three leads to keep St. Louis in it (we can only hope to set up a deeper heart-cutting for the last week in April when they play twice), and though Colorado holds the 1st wild card they’re only two points from dropping completely out of it. So the Hawks can play spoiler again, a role which they’ve been particularly shit at ever since it became their calling.

Not much has changed since the Avs were here just two weeks ago. Meaning they still have the best player on the planet in current form right now, so not much else matters with them because Nathan MacKinnon will make it all ok. Since he was last here, when the Hawks miraculously held him to just one goal, he’s poured in 11 points in six games. He’s four points off the scoring lead in the NHL even though he missed eight games. He leads the league in points per game at 1.39 and if he would have played a full 82 would’ve ended up somewhere around 114 points. Quite simply he’s been freakish, so if you’re headed to the UC tonight you’ll be treated to the sight of a player playing about as well as anyone has managed in years.

And because someone has to come along for the ride, Mikko Ratanen has 11 points in his last five games as his linemate. Ratanen does more than simply stand around and let Mac K bank the puck off of him into the net, and given his size and where he shoots from his 16.4% shooting percentage might be closer to the norm for his career than just a spike. The following years will tell, but the Avs might have a budding power forward on their hands if they can introduce him to a kettlebell this summer.

Adding to the roll for Denver is that Semyon Varlamov has gotten hot, letting in only six goals in his last five appearances. Between these two, the Avs really should lock up a playoff spot no one saw coming. Their schedule is somewhat kind to them from here on out as well. They get the Hawks twice, the fading Knights twice, the Flyers at home, and then a California swing that will probably tell the tale. Those Knights games ought to be interesting, as that very well might be the first round matchup and the Avs will have the pleasure of pilfering that outfit in their first real test. It basically will come down to the Avs have MacKinnon and the Knights don’t.

And then it gets scary, because if the Avs are slung out to the Pacific and can put the knife into the false gods of Vegas, there’s really no reason they can’t beat San Jose or LA or Anaheim or whatever other dreck is left out there. The Avs in the conference final? God help us and this league is a hell toilet. Anyway, pretty impressive for a team that was supposed to be at the beginning of a rebuild. But then I guess all it takes in this league is for your #1 line to freak the fuck off and there you are, along with goaltending. We did watch the Hawks the past two years, after all.

For the Hawks, Matthew Highmore dinged himself on Sunday and is out, so they’ve called up Andreas Martinsen who can’t do anything but will run around like a meth-head for a while and pick a stupid fight and Foley and Konroyd will slather themselves in Worcester sauce over it and “DATS WUT DIS TEAM HAS BEEN MISSING ALL SEASON MY FRENT!” bullshit that already has me kicking various wood furniture around the house. After JF Berube was given the chance to grab the brass ring of backup next year and let it and Patrik Berglund’s shot through him, Anton Forsberg will get another chance to shoot his confidence in the face with a bazooka tonight.

Yeah… I don’t know. Only seven of these left after this. Also, we’ll be recording the podcast during this one, so send in your questions on Twitter during the day if you have something you want to know or just hear us bitch about .

 

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@Anthrax Jones is a truly scary individual. We asked him these questions and then ducked behind the couch. You should too. 

Nathan MacKinnon is on a 110-point pace, even though he missed a little time. Why has he become Asgardian this season?

We knew he had this in him, we saw it in the World Cup with the NAU23 team when he stood out over everybody on the roster, including Connor McDavid. Two days earlier this season may have been what evolved mild-mannered Nathan MacKinnon from “maybe we should’ve taken Barkov or Seth Jones” to “Indestructible Cyborg Nathan MacKinnon”: a late-October 7-0 loss to Vegas that saw him wheel and fight Brayden McNabb after a bad hit, and you could tell he was taking out his frustration from a slow start on McNabb. Second was when the Avs traded Eeyore to Ottawa and suddenly there was a vacuum at the top of the lineup, which happened a few days after the Vegas debacle. Part of me wonders if something in Duchene’s attitude was keeping MacKinnon from wanting to really take ownership of the team in a leadership capacity, but whatever it was, it seemed to lift after the trade.

Your Special Boy Mikko Rantanen is also a point-per-game. Tell us why he’s your Special Boy. 

He’s our Big Baby Deer. It’s remarkable that he’s had the season he’s had so far, because he’s one of the most awkward-looking players I’ve ever seen. He looks like a large horse that still hasn’t figured out its legs yet. It makes me hopeful that he still has another gear to get to when he does get himself coordinated. He’s a smart player who finds himself in the right places at the right times, he has murderous hands for a kid his size, and he benefits from playing with Cyborg 29 and Angry Hossa, Babe Landeskog.

Two kids in Alex Kerfoot and Tyson Jost are on the second line. How have their rookie seasons gone?

Kerfoot and Jost have inverted one another so far. Kerfoot started the season blazing hot, and has really cooled down since then, which is natural for a kid who isn’t used to playing this many games against adult men with Dad Strength, instead of physics majors at RPI. Jost started slow and battled injuries, but for the past month or so it looks like something is clicking with him. They’re both gonna be good NHLers, but I think their future roles are still undetermined.
 
Are the Avs done treating Tyson Barrie like a redheaded stepchild and accept he’s actually quite good and necessary?

If the Avs don’t, they better listen to their superstar player, who’s not only best friends with Barrie, but also shares a brain with him on the ice. Their chemistry is ridiculous, and it’s truly a symbiotic benefit where they both make each other better. I haven’t always been on board with the idea of Tyson Barrie as a long-term piece on this roster, especially once Cale Makar hits the NHL roster, but I think it would be a mistake to trade him this offseason.

They going to make the playoffs?

They shouldn’t, but they’re gonna, and it’s because the Central Division beyond Nashville and the Mole People in Winnipeg ranges from desperately mediocre to downright bad. I’d love to see a first round matchup between Colorado and Vegas so we can never pay attention to pre-season “expert picks” ever again, but also because I think Vegas is gonna get picked off by whoever they play in the first round. The Avs aren’t deep enough to beat a Nashville type team in the second round, but every great team has to experience that first tough loss sometime, and I think this is that season.

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 vs. 

RECORDS: Avalanche 35-24-6   Hawks 28-30-8

PUCK DROP: 7:30

TV: WGN

DISPENSARIES AND BREWERIES: Mile High Hockey

As they will spend the rest of the season pretty much, the Hawks will gaze across to the other bench and see a team they used to barely give a thought now playing for the things they want, i.e. a playoff spot and a future. While the Avs always gave the Hawks fits even when the Hawks were dominant, at least we could laugh those losses off as something to be washed away in the irrelevance of regular seasons. Not so much anymore. as the Avs are right in the thick of a wild card chase, with an MVP candidate in their midst, a couple other kids worth watching, while the Hawks can only try to mind-meld with the sand in the hour glass, forcing it into the bottom chamber faster.

How the Avs have got here is basically saddling up on Nathan MacKinnon and running him until he stops. Mac K has the best point-per-game mark in the league, and if he hadn’t missed seven games he’d be running away with the Hart Trophy discussion. Writers are going to bend themselves in all sorts of directions and binds to keep it from him should the Avs miss out, and Taylor Hall winning it sure would have Brooks-ian levels of comedy to it. But no one has played better than MacKinnon, and he’s caused a Gabriel Three-Yaks-And-A-Dog revival as well as kick-started the career of Mikko Ratanen.

Beyond that though, if you’re getting a hint or whiff of 2014, when the Avs were good because they shot the lights out and got Varlamov’s Vezina year and actually weren’t all that good and were quickly exposed in the playoffs, you’re not entirely wrong. Because it’s not exactly easy to point to what this team does well other than “have Nathan MacKinnon and his career-doubling SH%.” They’re not a good possession team, or a terribly good defensive one, They give up a ton of attempts but are better at limiting the quality of those, as their expected goals-against per game is 11th in the league.

The one thing they do well is kill penalties, third in the league, and you’d think with all that speed that would go hand in hand. So if you don’t give up many power play goals and can just win things at even-strength, you’ll be ok. The Avs have done that, mostly thanks to their top line.

There’s a touch more to them than that. Tyson Jost and Alex Kerfoot on the second line portend to a pretty nice future if they continue to evolve. Nikita Zadarov on the blue line has been effective in his first season as a top-pairing guy. Tyson Barrie has the points but not the possession numbers he’s put up in the past.

And they stop the puck. At even-strength, this team has the fifth-best save percentage as both Varlamov and Jonathan Bernier have been excellent this season. Their overall numbers of .913 and .914 aren’t exactly inspiring, but they’ve combined for a ,925 adjusted at evens for the Avs. You’ll win a lot of games that way.

For the Hawks… I mean I don’t know that it matters anymore but it will be interesting to watch Keith and Murphy have the last change and get thrown out there against MacKinnon every shift so we can see how Murphy deals with that. He’s certainly looked ok in the role in the two games in Southern California. Other than that, I don’t really know what to tell you. More of Eddie O telling us how much they like Matthew Highmore and Pat Foley slowly turning into Caray and Piersall circa ’79? I’m not sure any of you hate this team more than Foley does right now.

Could be an ugly week for the Hawks. Then again they pretty much all have been since January. They face two teams scrapping for wild card spots in Colorado and Carolina, and then a home-and-home with somehow the second best team in the league in the Bruins. So that’s a good time for everyone.

Eat Arby’s.

 

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This is where you get into the whole what does “valuable” mean debate when deciding who should win the Hart Trophy. Is it simply the best player in the league? The one who has the most “value,” if hockey actually had a dependable WAR stat? Or is it the one player who meant the most to his team, the one that would be the worst off if you removed said player from them? This question has never been answered, which is why all of these should just be “Player Of The Year” awards, but that’s not why you called.

Nathan MacKinnon certainly has a claim to the latter.

MacKinnon missed eight games at the beginning of February. The Avs went 4-4-0, with wins coming over the Sabres, Habs, Oilers and Sharks. Only one of those teams doesn’t have a separate lunch period from the rest of the school. With MacKinnon, the Avs are 31-20-6, or a 97-point pace. Without him, though obviously a small sample size, they’re at a 82-point pace.

MacKinnon leads the league in points-per-game, with 77 points in the 57 games he’s played. That’s better than Kucherov, Stamkos, and Malkin. And though MacKinnon has the burgeoning Ratanen on his line, all of those other players have better players on their lines. MacKinnon has simply be an unholy force this season.

Of course, it’s hard to look past a shooting-percentage that has doubled from last season and is over 40% better than his career-rate. But MacKinnon’s underlying numbers are the best of his career as well. For the first time he’s above water when it comes to Corsi-percentage. His expected goal- percentage is also the best of his career, though not when it come relative to his team. Mac has benefitted from the rising water level of the Avs as a whole, as they finally have competent coaching for the first time in years.

MacKinnon is average the most individual attempts of his career at even-strength, which certainly helps. But the chances he’s getting aren’t. What has ballooned is his even-strength shooting percentage, to 15.7% when he’d never cracked more than 8% before.

What would help in the NHL, which we’ll never get, is whether MacKinnon’s shot is now harder or more accurate. Well, it is more accurate but is that luck or something he’s worked on? We’ll never know until we get player-tracking, which we may never get.

Either way, the Avs are sitting pretty right now, as MacKinnon is only due $6.3 million per season for the next five seasons, until he’s 27. Given what Stamkos and Crosby and Malkin and Toews and Kopitar are making, and what Tavares is about to get, a true #1 center at that rate is one of the biggest bargains around. The Avs have tons of cap space, though they’re an internal budget team so it’s not clear how close to the cap they can get. Kerfoot and Ratanen are due raises after next year, but only RFA ones. Zadorov on the blue line will be due one as well, and he’ll get more than the other two. But the Avs will have the space, and to add. That’s why you heard their name mentioned as a possible Erik Karlsson destination.

And we really liked when the Avs were an afterthought.

 

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