It’s been a rougher stretch of road for the Colorado Avalanche since the midpoint of December. The Avs return home after a couple tough outings in the Burroughs of New York, having lost to both New York’s Rangers and Islanders to extend Colorado’s troublesome two-week record to 3-6-1 in the last 10.
The Avs open up a five-game home stand by welcoming a depleted, but always dangerous Pittsburgh Penguins club to The Can this evening.
Last time out, the Avs looked as if they had returned to their usual form, opening the scoring against the Rangers by tallying a couple quick markers within two minutes of each other to take a 2-0 lead just over six minutes into the game. Everything was going as it should have for MacKinnon and Co. against New York’s rookie goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who was making his NHL debut. But as has been the story of late with Colorado, the Avalanche could not hold on to a lead and fell 5-3 in Manhattan.
It was another game in which the Avs special teams played poorly (0-for-3 on the power play, allowed power play goal) and it was the downfall. It was nice to see J.T. Compher notch a couple goals, but outside of him and the usual suspect Nathan MacKinnon, the effort was lackluster from the rest of the team. The Avalanche were playing the second game of a back-to-back and that was pretty obvious within the first few minutes of the game. The Avs looked a bit slower than the Rangers and that ultimately cost the Avalanche a precious two points against a mediocre Rangers club and an NHL-debuting goaltender.
The big storyline heading into tonight’s game is that Joonas Donskoi. After a brutal hit by the Rangers’ Ryan Lindgren — who received no supplemental discipline from the NHL outside of the beatdown by Nazem Kadri — it is unlikely that Donskoi plays tonight, as he is in concussion protocol.
Here are the practice lines from yesterday:
Gabriel Landeskog - Nathan MacKinnon - Mikko Rantanen
Andre Burakovsky - Nazem Kadri - Val Nichushkin
Matt Nieto - P-E Bellemare - Matt Calvert
Vlad Kamenev - Tyson Jost - J.T. Compher
Ryan Graves - Cale Makar
Sam Girard - Erik Johnson
Nikita Zadorov - Ian Cole
The big storyline heading into tonight’s matchup is whether or not Sidney Crosby will be ready to return from his surgically-repaired core injury that caused him to miss the last 26 games.
Crosby did not skate at practice yesterday, but I was informed via Penguins PR that it was a scheduled maintenance day for their ailing captain anyhow, and it is not an indication of whether he’ll play or not. I was also informed by their PR that Pittsburgh will not hold a morning skate today — that said, we won’t know if Crosby will make his return until around 5:00 p.m. MST, when head coach Mike Sullivan will meet with media outside of the Penguins locker room.
For the rest of the Pens, they are coming off a 4-3 win against their former friend Marc-Andre Fleury and the Vegas Golden Knights, and have now gone 16-6-4 in Crosby’s absence. So with or without their captain and their leading scorer in Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh will prove to be a formidable foe.
Stepping up in light of the injuries has been the recently-recalled Andrew Agozzino, who had spent the last seven seasons off and on within the Avalanche organization. Most recently, he was the leading scorer for the Colorado Eagles last season. This will be his first return to Pepsi Center, where he tallied his first career NHL goal on Feb. 18 with the Avalanche. He spent 21 games with the Avs over his time in Colorado, recording a goal and three assists.
While Colorado has struggled this season on the defensive side of things, Pittsburgh has not. The Penguins have allowed the fifth-fewest goals all season while also scoring the seventh-most.
Dominik Kahun - Evgeni Malkin - Bryan Rust
Dominik Simon - Jared McCann - Patric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-Reese - Teddy Blueger - Brandon Tanev
Alex Galchenyuk - Andrew Agozzino - Sam Lafferty
Jack Johnson - Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson - John Marino
Juuso Riikola - Chad Ruhwedel
Pavel Francouz will be between the pipes for Colorado tonight, as coach Bednar opts to give the struggling Philipp Grubauer a break. Grubauer has gone 2-5-1 since the Avs began their slump in mid-December. Frankie will get his second start of the new year, and will look for his first win since Dec. 23. Francouz has earned an impressive 11-4-1 record in 16 starts this season, carrying a .929 save percentage and a 2.32 goals-against average.
For Pittsburgh, it will likely be Tristan Jarry, who has been a stud for the Penguins this year. He’s gone 9-2-1 since the start of December and sits in first place among NHL goaltenders with a .934 save percentage and a 2.04 GAA (minimum 20 games).