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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Avalanche and Canadiens

The Canes resume their playoff chase with a back-to-back this weekend.

Colorado Avalanche v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

Colorado Avalanche

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

NHL: FEB 22 Avalanche at Kings Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Colorado Avalanche have positioned themselves comfortably for a playoff spot in the Central Division, currently sitting in third place with a nine point advantage on their fourth place competition. As such, the Avs actually had a pretty quiet trade deadline; their biggest move was for forward depth by adding Vladislav Namestnikov from the Ottawa Senators for a late-round draft pick.

Just because the Avs are sitting pretty in the playoff race doesn’t mean all is well in Denver. Injuries have begun to take a toll on the roster. Philipp Grubauer has missed over a week in net, Mikko Rantanen was recently placed on Injured Reserve with an upper body injury, Nazem Kadri and Matt Calvert are expected to be out multiple weeks, and even Andre Burakovsky has missed time recently due to illness. That leave of attrition makes the current three-game winning streak all the more impressive, and may well be proving that this is a team far more dangerous than even their record indicates.

Currently in the top-five in both offense and defense, the Avs have been a very solid foe all season. Despite having four losing streaks of three games or more on their record, they have always rebounded with long strings of solid, consistent play. That effort is led offensively by superstar Nathan MacKinnon. His 84 points is almost double the next closest contributor on the team. His 33 goals and 51 assists far outpace anyone on the roster as well, and despite already having a 97 and 99 point season to his name at age 24, this is without a doubt his greatest season yet. A bonafide Hart Trophy candidate, MacKinnon has actually been relatively quiet in recent days. With just one goal and two assists in his past five contests, MacKinnon would seem overdue for a big game or two in the coming days. If the Canes hope to slow the Avs, stopping MacKinnon is task number one.

In net, the Avs have leaned on a 29-year-old journeyman with Grubauer out. Pavel Francouz has stepped in for 22 starts on the season and has posted a robust .927 save percentage in what basically amounts to his rookie campaign. After spending a number of years in the Czech league and in the KHL, Francouz has seemingly found a home in the Mile-High City as part of a dynamic goalie tandem with Grubauer.

All in all, the Avalanche have assembled a deep, well-rounded roster that still showcases star power at the top in MacKinnon. They will be a tough out for the Canes on Friday night, and will be a team that no one is enthused to match up with in the Western Conference playoffs.

Montreal Canadiens

Saturday, 7:00 p.m. at Bell Centre

Vancouver Canucks v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens exit the trade deadline still within shouting distance of the playoff cut line, but with a number of teams between them and a playoff spot — including the Hurricanes, who would appear to be better positioned roster-wise to take advantage. Many thought that the Habs might unload more players within their current core such as Tomas Tatar or Jeff Petry, but ultimately the moves they made were on the fringes of the roster with the recently acquired Ilya Kovalchuk moved along to Washington and Nate Thompson, Nick Cousins, and Matthew Peca all moved for late-round picks. While the direction set by GM Marc Bergevin was not clearly a sign they are “going for it”, they nonetheless retain a roster with enough talent to win hockey games.

The underlying statistics of the Canadiens season does not portend a possible run towards a playoff spot. In the bottom half of the league both offensively and defensively, the Habs have never truly established an identity as a team. Special teams have both floundered around 20th in the league all season, and in general they have not been able to get on a roll of any significance to gain momentum as their longest winning streak of the year has been a handful of three-game streaks.

The offense has been spread out decently through the roster, as the Habs have needed scoring from all over the roster at even strength to try and overcome a lackluster powerplay. Tatar leads the team with 56 points, followed by Max Domi and Phillip Danault at 42 points each. Petry and captain Shea Weber have each contributed offensively from the blue line, with 37 and 36 points respectively.

Carey Price is still the prized netminder in Montreal, but at 32, it is difficult to think that the heavy workload thrust upon him (54 starts) will not have an effect on him down the stretch. His .911 save percentage and 2.74 goals against average are solid numbers, but have not been enough to fully overcome the mediocrity in front of him. And with just a 3-5-3 record in games that Price doesn’t play, and no back-to-backs remaining on the schedule for the Habs, it is hard to imagine Price not being in net for each contest for as long as Montreal stays relevant in the race.

The truth for the Canadiens is that winning on any given night requires a truly solid night from nearly everyone on the roster. They have to get contributions from everywhere and cannot have players or lines that are simply along for the ride. If they receive that effort and execution, they are still a dangerous team. If there is softness anywhere throughout the roster, more times than not it is being exposed and costing the Habs on the scoreboard.