Once again, Patrick Roy has delivered for the Colorado Avalanche.
Yes, playoff hockey is back in Colorado, and there’s plenty to look forward to here in Avalanche country as the National Hockey League playoffs get underway this week.
It was less than a year ago when the Avalanche head office hired the former goalie great Patrick Roy to lead the team into the future as its new head coach. Along with the hiring of Joe Sakic as the team’s executive vice president of hockey operations, it seemed like the organization was, at the very least, trying to make itself somewhat interesting again. Who knew that the hiring of a fight-prone, hot-headed former goalie would make such winning sense? I’d like to say I did, but I’d be lying.
The fact of the matter is that nobody saw the drastic improvements Roy would bring to the Avalanche. In his first season as coach, the Avs finished at the top of the Western Conference’s Central Division, with a record of 52-22 and 112 points. That’s a miraculous improvement from their 16-25 finish in the previous season, which was shortened because of a labor dispute.
Essentially, the Avalanche went from being the second-worst team in the N.H.L. to a playoff team in just one season. The Avs closed out their season Sunday with a 3-2 loss to Anaheim, which ended the season as the best team in the Western Conference. As Terry Frei of The Denver Post reported Tuesday, for awhile, leading up to the end of the season, the biggest story was how the surprising the Avs were in a second-place division fight with the Chicago Blackhawks. Then the Avs went on an 8-0-1 streak that, along with a St. Louis Blues slump, put the Avs in the driver’s seat to take the Central division. And the Avs were able to do all of this without top center Matt Duchene, who was injured last month and will be out for another week or so.
I think we all knew the Avs were good, but nobody believed Colorado would actually take the division. Not even Roy himself believed it.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” he told Frei. “Did I think we would win the division? The answer is no. Especially when 15 days or 16 days ago, we were like nine points behind the St. Louis Blues. Did I think that would happen? No. But at the same time, I was not trying to think about what would be the end of the season. I always believed we could have a very good year, and you never know where that brings you. But here we are.”
In the first round of the playoffs the Avs are set to face the Minnesota Wild, who made the playoffs as a wild card. The series begins Thursday, April 17, at 7:30 p.m. in Denver.
I don’t want to make any predictions here on how well the Avs will do against the Wild, but I do like their chances, because of their defense and because they have home ice. Having one of the greatest goalies in the game has paid dividends. This year Avs goaltender Semyon Varlamov set an Avalanche record this season of 41 wins, beating Roy’s record of 40. Last year, according to ESPN.com, Colorado was 29th in the N.H.L. in goals allowed per game. This year, with Varlamov between the pipes and Roy coaching, the team has bettered itself in that category to 14th. Not the best, but a vast improvement from the previous year.
Along with a good defense, the Avs are fast and have young legs. You would like to think that with the home ice advantage at altitude, the Wild would have a tough time keeping up with the Avs. It certainly will be their advantage.
The downside to the youthfulness of the Avalanche is their inexperience in the playoffs, where the pressure is ten times greater than regular season games. How well will the team rebound when faced with adversity? Will the Avs be able to grab a lead and then hold it? One of the key traits of the Minnesota Wild is that they have scored more points than any other team when trailing at the start of the third period. On the other hand, according to The Denver Post, the Avs are 35-0-2 when leading after two periods.
If you listen to The Dan Patrick Show often, you know that he likes the phrase “sneaky good.” He uses it to describe players, basketball teams, and even movies. On the surface, these “sneaky good” teams may not raise eyebrows, at first glance. But when you get close and look at the details, you can see glimmers of greatness.
The Colorado Avalanche, I believe, are sneaky good. They have all the moving parts they need.
Paul Stastny is proving to be a good leader in the locker room. The Avs’ defense is stout. There are no-name goal scorers on the Avs like Tyson Barrie, who can catch a team sleeping in the third period. Of course, the team carries the intensity of Roy. As we might expect of any great goaltender, he is very good at keeping his team focused on the task at hand. When it’s time to play with intensity, he gets them to.
As I said before, the only thing that may hold the Avs up in making it deep into the N.H.L. playoffs is their inexperience. They are entering a big stage, where nerves often get the best of players.
But, hey, nobody thought Roy could turn the team around this quickly. The Avs aren’t supposed to be at the top of their division. Last October, it was a stretch to believe Colorado would have home ice for the first and second round of the playoffs. Yet here they are. They have nothing to lose, really.
Playoff hockey is back in Colorado.