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Avalanche Thoughts – At The Halfway Mark

Thoughts on the first half of the season for the Colorado Avalanche, including three stand out players.

I was optimistic heading into this Colorado Avalanche season. I knew the talent on this team was there, they just needed a competent head coach. No matter how bad Patrick Roy might have turned out to be, there was no way he would be worse than Joe Sacco. It turns out that Patrick Roy isn’t bad at all.

The team got off to a blazing hot start, winning 14 of their first 16 games, before coming back down to earth. But when the team got down, unlike in previous seasons, they didn’t get too down. They stuck with their game, made the proper adjustments, and found a way to get back to winning. In the extremely tough Western Conference, the Avs have managed to keep pace with the top teams and find themselves as one of the top three teams in their division.

Plenty of players have stood out this year, but three players in particular are playing great hockey and are huge reasons as to why the Avs are in a playoff position.

Matt Duchene is having a career year. I thought he was in for a big year because of how talented he is and how hard he works, but he’s surpassed those expectations. He’s on pace for 30 goals, a mark that he looked guaranteed to break early in the season before missing a couple of games due with an injury. He’s an absolute treat to watch when he’s on the ice. He’s one of the fastest players in the league and has an endless amount of moves with the puck. I get the same feeling watching him behind the net that I got when I watched Peter Forsberg. He’s very shifty, uses the boards and the net to make plays with the puck, can spin off his man, and creates scoring chances for himself or his teammates. Due to injuries, he’s had a couple of different linemates, but whoever he plays with almost immediately starts to play better because of the chances Duchene opens up for them.

Like Duchene, Erik Johnson is having a career year as well. Thought to be a bust in St. Louis and struggling in Colorado after the trade, Johnson is finally starting to look like the #1 overall pick in the 2006 draft. He has 7 goals and 19 points, but more importantly, he’s playing the best defense of his career and is a +12. He’s constantly moving his feet on both ends of the ice, jumping up in the play offensively, and being smart positionaly on the defensive end. He just looks like a different player on the ice compared to the guy I’ve watched over the past couple of seasons. He just looks like a confident player out there and it’s made the rest of the defense confident as well.

Finally, Semyon Varlamov looks to be the franchise goalie we expected when we traded for him. Varlamov has always been a very athletic goaltender, but now, under the tutelage of Francois Allaire, he’s become a technically sound goalie. He’s holding the glove a bit higher and he’s out to challenge almost every shot that comes his way. He’s kept the Avs in almost every game and he’s won a few of them as well. He’s also shown a lot of fire in the net as well, something that he hasn’t shown in previous years. I’m sure being coached by Patrick Roy has nothing to do with that though.

Those three players have stood out the most, but there are others who are playing extremely well. On offense; Gabriel Landeskog continues to mature as a leader, Paul Stastny has been consistent at both ends of the ice, Ryan O’Reilly has turned into a very good winger, and Nathan MacKinnon is proving his value in many ways as the #1 overall pick. On defense; Jan Hejda makes Johnson’s life easier by being the shutdown defenseman of the pairing, Cory Sarich provides leadership and grit, and Andre Benoit has been good offensively.

The best part about this team is that they’re playing as a team. No one player is really carrying the team. They’ve bought what Roy is selling and they’ve all equally bought into it.

There is still room for improvement though. Alex Tanguay, who has only played 13 games, will hopefully be back soon. He had 9 points in those 13 games and was the calming presence and leader up front. P.A. Parentuea is also injured and schedule to be out until after the Olympic break, but when I talk about improvement, I’m not talking about getting healthy. I’m talking about a potential trade. Tyson Barrie and Ryan Wilson, both top 6 defenseman heading into the season, have been healthy scratches the past couple of games in favor of Nate Guenin and Nick Holden. Wilson and Barrie are valuable players who could be sought after in the trade market. I think the Avs would still love to add a top 4 defenseman, but they don’t seem to be in a hurry to make a big move, which is understandable given how well they’ve been playing.

As good as they’ve been playing though, we’ve seen this before. This team has a recent history of starting the season well and then collapsing after the All-Star or Olympic break. Even though the coach is different, a lot of the same players remain, and if they lose a couple after the break, who knows who they’ll respond. I’d like to think that they’ll do what they’ve done all season, which is continuing to play their game and get back on track, but you just never know.

It’s been a great first half of hockey, but 41 games still remain and now the Avs are expected to compete. They’re no longer a “feel good” story that snuck up on everyone. They are a team with expectations. At this point, I think everyone expects this team to make the playoffs. And if they don’t, as good as this season has been, it’ll be a disappointment.

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