Are the Avs For Real This Time?
On December 2nd, Colorado were dead last in the Central Division and seven points outside of the playoffs, with only Edmonton and Calgary keeping them from the foot of the Conference.
Today, the Avs are on a four game winning streak and hold the first wild card spot in the West.
From all but out of it to one of the hottest teams in the NHL. Has Patrick Roy’s side ‘figured it out’? Or are we simply seeing some ‘puck luck’ bouncing the Avs way?
Perhaps this recent upswing can be traced back as far as November 9th, when Matt Duchene’s name hit the trade rumour mill following a 4-9-1 start for the Avalanche during which Duchene contributed just four goals and six points.
Duchene promptly added two goals and an assist the following night – apparently responding to the fire General Manager Joe Sakic lit under him.
The Avs improved to 10-14-1 by December 2nd, with Duchene scoring nine goals and 17 points during that stretch, and the former Brampton Battalion forward now leads the club with 22 goals and 40 points in 50 games, providing a formidable 1-2 punch with 20-year old Nathan MacKinnon.
Given the clubs defensive weaknesses in recent years, the Avs have often lived and died by their offence – with Duchene a significant part of the machine – but one other notable improvement has come at the back.
Through the first two months of the season, Semyon Varlamov’s even strength 5v5 adjusted save percentage was 88.66% – the worst in the league among netminders who had played at least 600 minutes.
Since December 2nd it has been a league leading 95.06%.
That’s quite the turn around.
While Reto Berra put in some strong performances prior to injury, Varlamov has become something of a talisman for the Avs. The Russian puck stopper was stellar during the 2013/14 season, when the Avs won the Central Division, and finding a similar vein of form over the past few weeks has been key to the organisations revival.
Naturally it doesn’t come down to just two players to make a team a success, but when it’s your #1 centre and starting goaltender there is a certain amount of expectation placed upon them – slow starts from Duchene and Varlamov undoubtedly hurt the organisation, while recent hot streaks have helped propel the Avs upward.
Supporting efforts from new signing Carl Soderberg (10 goals, 34 points) and Tyson Barrie have also helped the Avalanche make strides, and the club’s record against the rest of the Central Division, currently 12-3-1, has played a part in not only getting the Avs in to the top eight, but keeping them in the hunt in the first place.
Is it simple good fortune? Or have Colorado worked out the formula to beat it’s nearest and dearest? Either way, with almost half of their remaining games (14 of 32) coming against Central Division teams, including five games against Minnesota and Nashville – their closest competitors in the Central Division right now – the Avs might be feeling optimistic about their chances of rebounding from a disappointing campaign last term.
Can they really make the cut though? That’s the $64 million question.
Despite being the fifth highest scoring team in the league (seventh if we sort by goals for per game), Colorado are dead last in Corsi For at both even strength 5v5 (44.2%) and in all situations (45.1%), and not a single skater has a positive Corsi For at even strength 5v5.
Compare that to, say, Winnipeg, currently bottom of the Central Division, who have ten skaters North of 50%, and it doesn’t paint a particularly pretty picture.
This is not dissimilar to last season, when Colorado missed the playoffs by 9 points.
Whether people choose to believe it or not, these sort of underlying numbers tend not to go hand in hand with success long term. It’s something Colorado has been bitten by before – going from Division champions to also rans in the space of a year.
The same issues remain ever present in Denver, just masked by a run of good form – this is no more apparent than when looking at the Avs own end, where Varlamov has faced the third highest number of shots per sixty minutes over the last two months (all situations) in spite of the ‘winning streak’.
Colorado has also played the third highest number of games in the Western Conference, putting Divisional rivals Nashville (52 points, two games in hand) within striking distance of the Avs while the Pacific Division jumble means San Jose (54 points, three games in hand), Arizona (51 points, three games in hand), Vancouver (51 points, one game in hand) and Anaheim (46 points, four games in hand) may also be gunning for the Avs in the coming weeks as the wild card race hots up.
None of this is to say Colorado can’t hold on, but again they seem to be overly reliant on certain members of the roster playing well – most notably Varlamov – which could lead to a drop off at any moment.
It does make the Avs rather fun to watch, providing one of the more intriguing stories down the stretch.
Can they hold on?
And what happens at the trade deadline if the Avs do slip? Especially with Alex Tanguay and Jack Skille heading towards unrestricted free agency.
Whatever the outcome, with a Stadium Series game against the Red Wings also coming on February 27th, there’s certainly a bit more buzz around the Pepsi Centre right now.