OK, now I’m worried.

Anyone who has followed this column over the last few months knows the drill when it comes to the Colorado Avalanche. These are the long-term rankings, it’s about who’s positioned for a Stanley Cup, and we don’t overreact to an unexpected win or loss here and there. The standings matter, but they’re not all that matters. The Avs are the most talented team in the league, they’ll get healthy, and they’ll be fine.

Everyone … I’m starting to wonder about whether they’ll be fine.

And no, this isn’t just about the Blackhawks game. Bad teams beat good teams all the time, and even historically bad teams beat championship-caliber teams at least occasionally. As I’ve preached all year, one result doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. This goes deeper than that, as Peter described on Friday. They’ve been awful since the holidays, including losses to Chicago, Arizona and Florida.

Now, Dom. We start worrying now. And we’ll use the bonus top five to outline a few reasons why.

Top five reasons I’m officially worried about the Avalanche

5. They might miss the playoffs — It could really happen. We’ve been hand-waving away the possibility all year, because they’re just too good. But right now, they’re on the outside looking in. They may be too far back of the top three in the Central to catch up, meaning it’s wild card or bust. Dom has them at about 70 percent odds. Other models are in the same range. which means they’re still far more likely than not to make up the ground. But 30 percent is a lot, especially when it comes to outcomes that are supposed to be impossible. And that’s just to get into the playoffs — if they make it as a wild card, that means a tough path through the conference, without home ice. That’s a rough journey for a supposed Cup favorite.

4. They’re healthy enough that it’s not an excuse anymore — Yes, they miss Gabriel Landeskog. Valeri Nichushkin too. Ideally, the blue line would have Josh Manson and Bowen Byram. But Nathan MacKinnon is back. Mikko Rantanen hasn’t missed a game. Neither has Cale Makar, although he’s maybe just a little off. Devon Toews is fine, and the goalies have been available. Every team has injuries, and the Avs had more than their share. But now, they’re healthy enough, which is all any team can be at the midway mark. Injuries aren’t an excuse anymore.

3. They lost to the Blackhawks — OK, I said it wasn’t just about the Hawks game. But good lord, how does that happen? How does a team in need of points go into Chicago and lose to a team that’s doing everything short of shooting the puck into their own net? This wasn’t a case of bad luck or getting goalied — the Hawks were the better team all night. The Hawks!

2. The narrative is about to change — The Blackhawks game feels like an inflection point. I haven’t been alone in my “the Avs will be fine” shrugging, but the ground was starting to shift ever-so-slightly even before this week. Now, we can expect a whole lot of “What’s wrong in Colorado?” stories.

Maybe that won’t matter. Maybe it will even inspire the team to snap out of it. But while NHL teams don’t run on vibes, the atmosphere around a team does matter. For the Avalanche, it’s mostly been one of quiet confidence all year. If that changes, a bad situation might get worse.

1. We’ve seen this before — Despite everything I just wrote, the Avalanche actually missing the playoffs still feels extraordinarily unlikely. But I said pretty much the same thing about last year’s Golden Knights. I definitely said it about the 2016-17 Lightning, who played seven playoff rounds in two seasons and then stumbled to 94 points in a year when the cutoff was 95. Weird stuff happens in the modern, parity-stricken NHL. We can say that an outcome feels unlikely without dismissing it as impossible.

And sure, it’s also very possible that we all look back on stuff like this in a few months and roll our eyes, because of course the Avalanche got back on track and had a deep playoff run. Maybe this is even the inflection point in the opposite direction, the moment that wakes up the sleeping giant. It sure looked like that on Saturday, when the Avs looked every bit like a champion with wounded pride and absolutely stomped the Senators 7-0. Maybe that was them sending the message that playtime is over.

We’ll see. But for now, let’s get to the rankings, and yes, our first top five of the season that doesn’t include Colorado (but does include a brand new team).

Road to the Cup

The five teams with the best chances of winning the Stanley Cup.

The Buffalo Sabres: More than just Tage Thompson!

5. Winnipeg Jets (29-14-1, +33 true goals differential*) — They’re in, even with last night’s uninspiring win. Look, if I’m going to spend the whole intro dumping on the Avalanche, then in theory that has to elevate the rest of the Central contenders. Dallas had a top-five spot last week, but a pair of losses opened the door for the Jets to pass them for the top spot in the division. I’m not completely sure that’s a good thing, because if the Avs are a wild card then maybe you’d rather finish second and play the wild. But for now, winning is good and the Jets have been knocking on the door for weeks. I’m going to let them in, at least temporarily. (Did they get bonus marks for still not having a shootout yet? No further questions.)

4. Vegas Golden Knights (28-14-2, +19) — We’ll welcome them back to the top five after two weeks on the sidelines. The Kings and Kraken both look good these days, but the Oilers and Flames are still mostly sputtering, so on balance I don’t think the Pacific is looking any tougher. Vegas isn’t exactly rolling right now, but they’re putting up points, and I still have them as my division favorite. But only barely, and we’ll get to that down below…

3. Tampa Bay Lightning (27-13-1, +27) — Yes, it’s the Lightning back in the top five, replacing the Leafs. It’s pretty much a coin flip, but the news in Toronto this week including the team admitting that Auston Matthews has a lingering injury and more up-and-down goaltending. When it’s this close and I’m predicting long-term success, I’ll nod to the recent champs who’ve won three straight and 12 of 16. But hey, isn’t it fun that we’re halfway through the season and already have Tampa and Toronto locked into a first-round playoff matchup?

2. Carolina Hurricanes (27-9-8, +20) — They snapped a four-game losing streak this week, one that had seen them give up an uncharacteristic 18 goals. One of those losses came against the Devils, so the top of the Atlantic is very much back in play. For now, though, favorite status still belongs to Carolina, even as they’re losing shootouts to the Canucks.

Also, apparently, Freddie Andersen is getting bored.

1. Boston Bruins (33-5-4, +29) — The home streak is over, but they responded well on Saturday, hosting Toronto in a game that was widely described as having a playoff feel, which is to say the Leafs lost. More importantly, there were reports that progress is being made with the David Pastrnak extension. At the rate he’s going, the sky’s the limit.

*Goals differential without counting shootout decisions like the NHL does for some reason.

Not ranked: Seattle Kraken — Admit it, Kraken fans. When you saw me say the Avs were finally out of the top five, you thought about it, right?

Here’s the thing: I did too.

We talked about how the Avalanche losing to the Blackhawks on Thursday felt like a tipping point moment, where fans around the league would finally start to accept that Colorado could miss the playoffs. But there was another tipping point game that night, and it came in Boston. The Kraken did what nobody else in the league has been able to do, beating the Bruins in regulation on their home ice.

The Bruins are the best team in the league, by a mile, and the Kraken walked into their building a shut them out with Martin Jones. It was their seventh-straight win, a streak that continued on Saturday when they absolutely embarrassed Chicago. They’re threatening to lead the entire league in scoring. The five-on-five numbers are elite. They’re great defensively.

Also, the goaltending is iffy, the penalty kill is awful, and they’re shooting 12.6 percent as a team, which is unsustainable unless they play the Blackhawks every night. There are some warning lights on the dashboard. What, you thought a second-year expansion team was going morph all the way into the 1970s Habs?

Still, what’s happening in Seattle is beyond impressive. I’ve already prepared my “I’m sorry I thought you’d get fired” apology card for coach Dave Hakstol, which I’ll be mailing out right after Lindy Ruff gets his. And with the Pacific looking the way it does, a playoff spot feels safe. Maybe it’s already locked up.

So we have to get our heads around the Kraken being a playoff team. Sure, most of us can do that. But what about the next question: Are these guys legitimate Cup contenders?

Our old pal Ryan Clark went into some detail on that question last week, and it’s an interesting read. The kicker comes from Craig Button, who says the Kraken aren’t a real threat until they get a new goaltender. That’s hard to do in the middle of a season, but maybe not as hard as we’re led to believe. It makes the Kraken a very interesting team to watch in the lead up to the trade deadline. GM Ron Francis has approached building this team with a patient plan, but he has an opportunity here and a bunch of extra picks to work with. And he might have a real Cup contender. I’m not quite sure yet, but I’m getting there.

The bottom five

The five teams that are headed towards dead last, and the best lottery odds for Connor Bedard.

If you missed it, the second edition of the Tank Index dropped last week. The idea there isn’t to list the teams that are most likely to finish last — that’s what the bottom five is for. Instead, we’re trying to figure out which team could get significantly worse if they chose to. And let’s just say, I think a lot of teams are making that choice right now.

Also, while the Canucks continue to spin their wheels outside of the bottom five, it feels like this Tanner Pearson injury story is getting ugly. Jim Rutherford is scheduled to address the media this morning, so let’s see where this goes.

5. San Jose Sharks (13-23-8, -31) — If you scan down the records for the bottom five teams, you’ll see that the Sharks are winning at the same abysmal rate as everyone else. Their problem, from a lottery odds perspective, is that they’re getting too many loser points — more than anyone in the league except for Calgary. The Flames are chasing a wild-card spot, so they’re happy to bank the extra points. But it’s a bad habit for the Sharks, given what’s waiting at the end of the season.

4. Anaheim Ducks (12-27-4, -80) — They’re back in it, narrowing the gap with Chicago and Columbus this week. Both of those teams have games in hand, which is a good thing for Anaheim under the circumstances. Meanwhile, Eric’s midseason grades are about as grim as you’d expect.

3. Columbus Blue Jackets (13-27-2, -58) — They almost blew a 4-0 lead against the Red Wings. But almost doesn’t count, so they’ll enjoy a win that was powered by a Patrik Laine hat trick.

Remember when we used to think Laine would be a slam dunk 50-goal guy? He’s now two away from getting number 50 … in his three seasons as a Blue Jacket. He’s had trouble staying healthy, and there are certainly times when he flashes that talent we were all in awe of when he was scoring 44 as a teenager. It’s just another reminder than you never know with young players, even when they’ve shown you that they can dominate at the NHL level.

2. Arizona Coyotes (13-25-5, -42) — They’ve lost nine in a row, all in regulation, and I’m just going to go ahead and say: I don’t think they’re making the playoffs.

1. Chicago Blackhawks (11-26-4, -58) — Patrick Kane is back, so we can fire up the trade speculation again. Meanwhile, let’s check in with Mark and see how the team is doing now that…

Not ranked: Philadelphia Flyers Flyers fans, where are we at?

The team has won seven of their last eight. They’ve beaten good teams, including the Sabres, Caps, Kings and Devils. They’ve also banked regulation wins over teams like the Coyotes, Ducks and Blue Jackets, helping those teams along in the lottery race.

Is this good?

In theory, sure. Wins are better than losses, or so I’ve been told. John Tortorella wasn’t given much to work with, but he’s doing what he always does, which is to squeeze as much as possible out of what he has. He looks like he’s going to get this team as far as it will go.

Unfortunately, that seems like it’s going to be right into the mushy middle. Too far from dead last to have any real shot at Connor Bedard, but nowhere near the playoffs.

So Flyer fans, talk to me. Are you in a bad mood, hurling C batteries at the standings page? Or are you happy with how things are going, which is to say you’re underhand tossing AAA batteries instead? Is this team exceeding your expectations, or is this the worst-case scenario? Because from the outside looking in, it feels like it might somehow be both at the same time.

(Photo of Avalanche coach Jared Bednar: David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

By sbavh

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