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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Buffalo Sabres

The Canes face a Mile High test before a big showdown in Columbus.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Columbus Blue Jackets Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

Colorado Avalanche

Monday, 9:00 p.m. at Pepsi Center

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Colorado Avalanche Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Avalanche continue to fight for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference with just 13 games remaining on their schedule, but were dealt a significant blow late last week when they announced that captain Gabriel Landeskog will miss the remainder of the regular season due to an upper body injury. Sitting only three points out of a playoff spot, the Avs lose their second-highest goal scorer and a critical member of what has been one of the NHL’s best top lines along with Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen.

The Avalanche will try to overcome the loss of Landeskog by picking up the slack deeper in the lineup, even though the only acquisition of note for Colorado was the addition of Derick Brassard from the Panthers. Nevertheless, the Avs possess a top-10 scoring team that, even without Landeskog, is capable of putting up enough goals to survive in what has become a battle of attrition on the Western Conference.

In goal, the Avs possess a solid tandem of former Washington Capitals, as Semyon Varlamov has put together a solid campaign with a .910 save percentage in 46 starts, while new addition Philipp Grubauer has been a bit of a disappointment in his 23 starts with only a .900 save percentage and a goals against average over three for the season.

For the Hurricanes to leave the Mile High City with two points, they must do a good job against the remaining top-line talent, and get a lead that will allow them to lean heavy on the mediocre blueline of the Avs. Scoring first would be a big boost.

What to Watch For

  • In a league where average shifts last 35-45 seconds at a time, the Avs top line with MacKinnon (1:01) and Rantanen (0:57) continuously stretch the limits of really long shifts. Especially in the altitude of Denver, it will be interesting to see if the Canes can trap that group in their own end some to create some great chances.
  • The Avalanche possess a potent powerplay (even without Landeskog) as they sit at eighth-best in the league to date, but their penalty kill has suffered down to 28th. Can the Canes take advantage of that area of struggle and win the special teams battle?

Columbus Blue Jackets

Friday, 7:00 p.m. at Nationwide Arena

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Columbus Blue Jackets Jason Mowry-USA TODAY Sports

The boom or bust Columbus Blue Jackets have pushed all of their chips into the center of the table in the race for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Friday night could prove to be a decisive matchup among division rivals that are still vying for the playoff spots that remain up for grabs.

Despite not being firmly in a playoff spot as the deadline approached, General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen elected to retain pending unrestricted free agents Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, despite the fact that each indicated they are likely to go elsewhere over the summer. Instead, Kekalainen doubled down on his bet with his current roster, adding significant reinforcements with the acqusition of Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel from the Senators, and Adam McQuaid from Rangers. In the process, the Blue Jackets 2019 draft was decimated to just a third and seventh round selection. Kekalainen hopes to not only jumpstart his team and vault them into contender status, but to also potentially retain the services of Duchene and Dzingel, as they join the list of pending free agents on this talented, but newly joined roster.

The early results since the deadline have been mixed, as the Jackets continue to hover right at the cut line, tied with the Canadiens, but with a game in hand. While most are aware of the talent level possessed in Columbus, what may well stand in their way is the remaining slate of games. The Blue Jackets close their final 14 games with eight contests against current playoff teams (as well as a battle against the Canadiens, who they are currently tied with). Combine that schedule with a western Canada swing, and the road is not easy for the Jackets. Friday’s tilt will be the last home game before a road trip that begins the following night in Boston, then carries the Jackets to the Pacific for a total of four games before they return home. If Carolina can deal the Jackets a blow at home before they embark on that trip, and secure the season tiebreak, it could go a very long way towards keeping the Canes on top of Columbus in the overall standings.

What to Watch For

  • The Blue Jackets have struggled to get comfortable as a group with the two major acquisitions on their forward lines. Seeing where Duchene and Dzingel slot in on Friday will be interesting. Will they have developed any more cohesion in their two games earlier in the week?
  • Who starts in net for each team will be interesting. John Tortorella interestingly sat Bobrovsky last week for a loss in Pittsburgh in favor of Joonas Korpisalo. Will Bob get the nod at home against the Canes, or will he play on the road the next night in Boston?

Buffalo Sabres

Saturday, 7:00 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Colorado Avalanche Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

After a scorching start that actually saw them leading the Atlantic Division early in the year, the Buffalo Sabres have floundered late and have fallen completely out of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference. Losers of four in a row and six of their past seven, the Sabres now must do without captain Jack Eichel for two games after he was suspended for a hit to the head on Carl Soderberg this past week. Conveniently, he is slated to return on Saturday against the Hurricanes, while missing out on Thursday’s battle against the Pittsburgh Penguins at home. So, the Sabres top performer should be rested and ready to go on Saturday as he and his mates look to play spoiler in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The struggles of late for Buffalo have been on the defensive side of the puck, as they have given up three or more goals in each of their last seven games, and have not recorded a shutout since before Christmas. Their overall goals against has plummeted to 22nd in the league as a result. Carter Hutton has played admirably in his first season as a starter, posting a .912 save percentage and 2.82 goals against average in 40 starts. The problem has been the high volume of shots (eighth-most in the league) and the quality of those chances. Despite the presence of first overall draft pick Rasmus Dahlin, Rasmus Ristolainen, and the acquisition of Brandon Montour for the blueline at the deadline, the Sabres have been unable to consistently break out of their own zone efficiently, and have continued to have breakdowns in coverage that have led to too many chances from the high-danger spots in front of the net.

For Carolina to emerge victorious again in the second of a back-to-back against a fresher opponent, they must get pucks deep in the offensive zone and work to gain position in front of the net. The more stress they apply on the forecheck, the more likely they are to generate top-notch chances on turnovers. Keep a high-pressure forecheck going, and convert the chances that you create. It sounds simple, but a simple game right now works best against a team having trouble keeping the puck out of their own net.

What to Watch For

  • For the whole week, tracking the health of Micheal Ferland is a key for the Canes. His heavy game is a big part of what has made the Canes so tough to play against in the second half of the year. Will he be able to contribute?
  • The Canes have fared well in the second part of back-to-backs, and again find themselves up against a fresher team in the second game. Will they have the legs they need?