Finally, I have a reason to post a Peter Budaj picture. What reason? Semyon Varlamov has tied Budaj’s franchise record for consecutive starts without a regulation loss.
After a couple of days off, Colorado capped off the quick two game road trip with an OT win over the defending cup champion Blackhawks. The Avs jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead on goals from Tyson Barrie, and Ryan $’Reilly. The goals came within 62 seconds of each other, and really stunned the Blackhawks and the United Center crowd. From there, Chicago slowly took over the game. Johnny Oduya scored in the second and Andrew Shaw in the third to knot things up and send the game to overtime. Andre Benoit drew a penalty from Jonathan Toews at the 3:34 mark of OT, giving Colorado 1 minute and 26 seconds of 4 on 3 powerplay time. They needed only 35. Barrie slapped home his second of the game to give Colorado the win.
Next, Patrick Roy and co. were set to dual with their counterpart in the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals- the New Jersey Devils. Martin Brodeur got the night off, with Cory Schneider getting the start for the Devils. $’Reilly continued show his skill, netting the only Avalanche goal, on a very solid play from Patrick Bordeleau behind the net. A lot of fourth liners don’t have the presence of mind, or skill to get that puck to O’Reilly, oops sorry I mean, $’Reilly in front. Reid Boucher added the lone Devils goal in the third. Ultimately it was the birthday boy Matt Duchene who scored the shootout winner, giving Colorado another 2 points.
A square dance in Nashville produced highs and lows for fans of both teams. At one point in the third, Matt Duchene scored a goal, ending his 13 game goalless drought, making the score 5-1 Avs. Peter McNab declared the game over, and is 100% to blame for the 3 Nashville goals in the last 12 minutes of the game, almost costing Colorado the victory. Bottom line, 2 more points.
The more I watch the Avs play, the more I start to think that this team can contend, and contend this year. With uncertainly surrounding Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly’s future with the team, this may be the year to go for it.
I know it sounds crazy with like likes of Chicago, and St. Louis standing in our way within the division, but I believe it can be done. Yes, right now the team is leaning heavily on goaltender and Vezina trophy candidate Semyon Varlamov, but is that any different than what the LA Kings did a couple of years ago with Jonathan Quick?
Right now, against the 7 other teams in the playoffs, the Avs combined record is 8-4-3. They are 0-2 against St. Louis this year, and 0-1 against Vancouver. They have a winning record against the other five teams. In a season where the western conference is clearly the bestern conference, that’s a solid record. Even if you throw out getting points for OT losses, they’re still 8-7 on the season.
St. Louis scares me. The Avs have looked terrible against the Blues in both matchups this year, and therefore Avs fans should be the biggest Blues fans around, hoping St. Louis can overtake Chicago for the 1 seed in the Central division. I’d rather see the defending champion Blackhawks in the first round than a hungry Blues team. Who would that leave St. Louis against right now? Vancouver. A team, that despite their well-documented playoff struggles, matches up well against the Blues, and is 2-0 against St. Louis this year.
Of course, the biggest knock on the Avs right now is defense, and rightfully so. Erik Johnson and Jan Hejda are a clear cut top line pairing in the NHL, and both are having great seasons. Assuming all are healthy, which is a big assumption for some, that leaves Ryan Wilson, Tyson Barrie, Nick Holden, Andre Benoit, Cory Sarich, and Nate Guenin to fill the bottom 4 spots. Of those, I’ll take Wilson, Barrie, Holden, and Sarich right now. That leaves Nate Guenin and Andre Benoit as the odd men out, and potential trade bait.
#2 Nick Holden
All year long, Avs fans have been clamoring for another top 4 defenseman, while one may be developing right under their noses. Nick Holden, while having played in less than half of Avalanche games this season, has taken advantage of his opportunity to get more consistent ice time. Holden leads the defense in points per game, and while he is playing more of a sheltered role than Johnson or Hejda, he has shown to be effective killing penalties, and has been one of Colorado’s best defensemen in 2014.
Understandingly, fans might not want to rely on the 26 year old rookie to play a pivotal role come playoff time. That’s where a trade could come into play. If Colorado is comfortably in a playoff spot come early March, they may look to make a deal to bolster the blue line. Taking a look at some teams who might be willing to deal a top 4 guy come March; I’ve identified the Islanders, Panthers, Sabres, and Jets as the ideal teams for Colorado to deal with.
Starting with the Islanders, they’re not scared to make bold moves (see: Vanek, Tomas) and no longer have a first round pick because of it. They’re also in desperate need of goaltending. They have a couple of guys who could interest Colorado: Travis Hamonic, and Andrew MacDonald. In this hypothetical the Avs are in win now mode, and the guy who helps the Avs more, in my opinion, is MacDonald. The 27 year old is having a fine season on the island, accounting for 22 points in 50 games, averaging almost 26 minutes in ice time and is leading the league in blocked shots, but is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year.
Andrew MacDonald, #47
So what would it take? If Tomas Vanek is worth a 1st and 2nd to the Islanders, I propose a sending Sami Aittokallio and a 2nd to New York for MacDonald. If Colorado is pretty securely in a playoff spot, I’d be fine with that pick becoming a 1st, but I think NYI would accept the previous deal. The deal helps NYI recoup a draft pick lost to Buffalo, and gives them a very solid goalie prospect in Aittokallio to compete for the number 1 spot when Evgeni Nabokov decides to hang them up.
That leaves Colorado with these three potential defensive pairings:
All three lines look solid defensively, while having a lot of offensive upside. I’d be comfortable rolling that come playoff time.
Offensively, Colorado is 6th in the NHL with 2.90 goals per game. If the Avs can get a little blue line help without giving up any offensive players, they could be very dangerous. Time for a little math; if you take the goals for per game, minus the goals against per game of the last 6 Stanley Cup champions, you get these numbers: 2013 CHI: 1.08, 2012 LA: .22, 2011 BOS: .68, 2010 CHI: .72, 2009 PIT: .59, 2008 DET: .89. Taking the average of those six numbers, you get .6966666 and so on. What’s is the 2013-14 Avalanche team at right now? .52. I know health is a big assumption to make, but I think adding a healthy Alex Tanguay pushes that number up .1, as does adding a top 4 defender…hypothetically bringing the Avs number to .72.
And let’s not forget who Colorado has between the pipes. Semyon Varlamov is currently sitting T-3 in the NHL in wins, 13th in goals against (for goalies that have 20+ games), and 5th in save percentage for 20+ game goalies. The Russian goaltender’s confidence may be at an all-time high, and that’s with a mediocre defensive core in front of him. And remember his 2009 playoff performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins? You know, keeping the Capitals in that series even though Pittsburgh was the better team. Remember this save?
How about the 2011 Winter Classic against those same Penguins? Yeah, he stole the show by making 32 of 33 saves and was named the game’s first star. Bottom line: Varly’s clutch. Don’t worry about him.
I’m not saying that the Avs should be cup favorites, but I am saying this team could be on the brink of something special. Colorado has consistently found ways to win games against the best competition this year. It hasn’t always been pretty, but there are a lot of pieces already in place for the Avs, enough for me to think that with a Joe Sakic brushstroke or two, this team could look like a beautiful work of art.