Mr. X, The 2011 Avalanche

By Derek Kessinger

With 82 games, a hockey season is really a collection of performances rather than one picture of a team. A successful hockey team must find an identity that adequately stands up when clashed against a variety of other teams. With the NHL’s system of two points for a win and one point for an overtime or shootout loss, teams must find a way to score 96 points, or an average of 43 wins, to make it to the postseason.

The playoffs would be a success for the Avalanche this season even if they are at the bottom of the eight team Western Conference field. With the club committed to giving the Washington Capitals its first and second round draft picks, getting in the playoffs removes the possibility of a high lottery pick in the NHL draft. Currently, anyone associated with the team is reeling over the fact that the team will receive no immediate relief, like a Gabriel Landeskog, if they fail to meet their potential.

The Avalanche have played very different styles in their last four games. Three of the styles were somewhat effective while the fourth one looked good on paper. However, without consistency, this team seems doomed to lose, over and over again. The combined results of this inconsistent play has been seen in their 2-7-1 record in November.

When the Avalanche went on its six road game winning steak at the beginning of the season, they were a team that focused on pushing the play to allow for easy opportunities on the offensive end. Their strong defensemen allowed the forwards to take risks as they protected their own end. Goalie Semyon Varlamov was sharp, focused and able to make the saves needed to win games. And the struggles of the rest of the offense were erased by the strong play of their third line: O’Reilly, Landeskog and Winnik.

Since then, there have been flashes of each of those moments. Garbriel Landeskog, for the most part, continues to impress. Ryan O’Reilly works harder than anyone on the ice and creates opportunities. Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny have been contributors on the offense along with the new captain Milan Hejduk. Kyle Quincey, Shane O’Brien and Ryan Wilson have been solid defenders, giving the Avs a chance every night. Recently with goalie J.S. Giguere has made the big saves.

The negatives of the team recently have been well documented. Last Tuesday, the Avalanche pushed a fast fun game against the Penguins that saw a three to zero lead, only to be beaten by the best fast-tempo hockey team in the league. Then on Thursday, the Avalanche clamped down on defense against Minnesota, the best trap defense in the league, only to lose 1-0 late in the game. Sunday night, with San Jose visiting, the Avs played a wait and see style of hockey in which they took long shots and were circled by Sharks in their own end, giving up goals.

The only effective game in that stretch was against the Dallas Stars. The Avalanche played a fast-tempo style of hockey, which allowed the offense to spread out the defense and take quality shots. They tried to take advantage of odd man rushes, but collapsed on the goal when necessary. This led to Stastny’s pivotal game winning goal, where he crashed into the crease to tip in the puck. The defense pushed the tempo, but remained solid with Shane O’Brien drawing a key penalty in the game. All four lines were effective in pushing the pace.

There is no question that the Stars’ game is the identity this team needs to be successful the rest of the NHL season. Currently the Avs sit 12th in the Western Conference with 19 points in 21 total games. If the target goal is 96 points in 82 games, they are definitely off the mark. Although, perhaps the number of points to make the playoffs will be less than normal, as the average is down so far this season.

Does Colorado have the ability to play consistent hockey every night? Do they have the personnel and the drive? So far, they have not shown the drive in November and they need to right this ship quickly and get to .500 before they head back on the road after six more games on Tuesday December 6th. They sit two games below .500 now, which means a 4-2 mark for the rest of the home stand. The season is young but a team without an identity will fall to their opponents again and again.

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