Thursday, 9:00 p.m. at Pepsi Center
While most everyone around the NHL expected the Colorado Avalanche to be a bottom-feeding team, following one of the worst non-expansion seasons in recent NHL history last season (22-56-4, 48 points), the Avalanche have come out of the starting blocks in 2017-18 with a solid 6-5-0 start, good for 3rd place in the Central Division in the early going. While you cannot draw too many conclusions from just 11 games, it is no doubt a breath of fresh Rocky Mountain air for fans in Denver, who spent all offseason awaiting the seemingly inevitable Matt Duchene trade which never came, all the while dreading what could, on paper, be a worst team than last season’s dumpster fire with Duchene gone. Instead, with Duchene still around, and with youngster Mikko Rantanen along with low-key acquisitions Sven Andrighetto and former #1 pick Nail Yakupov posting solid starts to go along with a talent core of Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon and captain Gabriel Landeskog, the Avs have stayed competitive.
No one is prepared to consider the Avs contenders just yet, but it does appear that the future in Denver may not be as bleak as once pictured. While a Duchene trade is still likely, it appears the Avs have been able to buy themselves some time for new and more desperate buyers to emerge as the season progresses.
While the return of Semyon Varlamov in net certainly was expected to improve the goaltending for the Avs, he along with backup Jonathan Bernier has supplied a very pedestrian .904 save percentage with 3.02 goals per game. Nothing special, but enough to keep the Avs in games as their scoring output has increased thus far, after finishing dead last in the 2016-17 season.
Teenage defenseman Tyson Jost is expected to miss multiple weeks with a lower-body injury, and 23-year-old enter Alexander Kerfoot will be a gametime decision. Aside from those, though, the Avs have remained fairly healthy, which is a change from a season ago. As the Hurricanes begin their road trip in the Mile High City, they can expect a rested Avalanche squad, who also has off until Thursdays tilt.
The Canes must first do a good job of shutting down the top offensive talent the Avs will put out there. If Duchene, MacKinnon and Landeskog aren’t on the score sheet, you always have a good chance to win against the Avs.
Offensively, the Canes must rely of the type of offensive effort they have seemed to have while playing on the road in the early going this season. On the heels of the impressive 6-3 win in Toronto, the Canes returned home and frustrated their fans with two below average performances in going 0-1-1 against the Blues and Ducks. The Canes hope to continue to generate the types of chances they go in the Ducks game, where they failed on two overtime breakaways and missed a handful of good additional scoring chances in regulation. The key will be cashing in on their opportunities, both in Thursday’s game and going forward.
What to Watch For
- Rantanen-Andrighetto-MacKinnon. These guy have been very involved in the Avs offense, combining for 26 points in 11 games. They also have been involved in a lot of the goals against for Colorado, combining for a total of minus-19 in the first 11 games as well. The Canes must keep those players in their own end. If they do so, good things should happen.
- Who will be in goal? Coach Bill Peters intimated that three goals should have been enough on Sunday, and undoubtedly part of his ire was directed at Scott Darling who allowed a questionable game tying goal in the third period against Anaheim, and has generally underwhelmed with his .897 save percentage in 8 starts. Might Bill Peters go to his old trusty Cam Ward? Ward has been sparkling with a .941 save percentage in his only two games of work this season. The decision will be interesting to say the least.
Saturday, 9:00 p.m. at Gila River Arena
The Arizona Coyotes finally broke through last night with their first win of the season, a road OT win over the Philadelphia Flyers. As you can imagine, getting your first win in game 12 of the season is not exactly according to plan. In fact, the Coyotes managed to blow a three goal lead to push the game to OT, but were able to claim their first victory when Alex Goligoski snapped home the winner with only 15 seconds remaining in the extra session.
Despite the win in Philly, the early going in the desert has been disastrous. While newly acquired Derek Stepan has provided a decent seven points in 12 games, his minus-7 rating shows how little impact he has had. Their leading scorer, rookie 19-year-old Clayton Keller, has been a nice flash of offense, but disturbing trends such as highly-acclaimed Oliver Ekman-Larsson playing to a minus-12 rating in only 12 games is downright scary.
As you can draw from the individual stats, the defense would best be described as porous in Arizona. By allowing 51 goals (4.25 per game) so far, they are last in the league, and as a team the Coyotes have already cycled through four (FOUR!) starting netminders in just 12 games.
There are a host of numbers and comparisons that can be thrown around regarding the Yotes, but none of them will get to the central point of what the Hurricanes need to do to be successful in Glendale on Saturday. The Canes need to put the puck in the net. It is that simple. They should be able to create ample opportunities if they play a solid and sound fundamental game.
At some point, offensive talent must play to its true level, and for Carolina, that should mean going into Arizona and tallying enough goals to come away with two points. They are the better team, and no matter how well and with how much energy the Coyotes come out and play, if the Canes are truly expecting to be a playoff team, matching that intensity and supplying the needed finish to win a hockey game on the road is what should be expected.
What to Watch For
- Even with a few newer vets sprinkled in with Stepan, Jason Demers and Niklas Hjalmarsson, the exciting part of watching the Coyotes is seeing youngsters such as Keller, Max Domi and Anthony Duclair fly around making plays and also making mistakes. Check out that speedy talent.
- After the Canes finish this trip out west, they will only have the trip to take on the California teams and Vancouver remaining on their west coast itinerary. After handling the Alberta teams, it would be a nice change to continue to mine for points out west.