Sunday, November 8, 2009

Avalanche, WTF?

You may recall in my Useless Predictions preview that my most used word in describing the Colorado Avalanche was "suck." There were big questions in goal, too many young players expected to fill the huge shoes of Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth, and lots of concern about rookie coach Joe Sacco in the wake of Tony Granato's turbulent tenure.

We're now through five weeks of the regular season, and the Colorado Avalanche are 12-4-2. They sit atop the Western Conference standings, tied with the San Jose Sharks for most points in the NHL.

I don't think this is going to last, but the Avs have proven myself and many other prognosticators wrong about whether or not this is a quality team. They will almost assuredly make the playoffs, and since I had them pegged to finish no higher than 14th in the West, they're the most pleasant surprise in the league this year.

Craig Anderson has been flat-out fantastic in goal, going into Sunday night's contest against Edmonton with a .930 save percentage, a 2.15 GAA and two shutouts, rendering incumbent starter Peter Budaj irrelevant. Anderson's efforts earned No. 1 Star honors for October, edging out some guy named Ovechkin. He played well backing up Tomas Vokoun last season yet I highly doubt Colorado was expecting this kind of output from Anderson upon signing him.

From an offensive perspective, the Avs are seventh in the NHL in goals scored, and they've been led by a finally-healthy Paul Stastny (18 points) and veteran snipers Wojtek Wolski (15) and Milan Hejduk (14). While rookie center Matt Duchene had all the hype coming into this season, it's another rookie center that's stolen the spotlight. Ryan O'Reilly was the Avs' second pick behind Duchene this year, and he's dazzled, currently tied with Hejduk for third on the team in points.

O'Reilly and Duchene are both 18, giving the Avs two excellent (very) young centers along with Stastny (a dinosaur at 23) to build around. Duchene has cooled after a strong start, which is to be expected from a teenage playmaker.

Defense has also been a hallmark for these Avs in front of Anderson, with Kyle Quincey, John-Michael Liles, Scott Hannan and Kyle Cuminskey thriving for a team that's allowed the third-fewest goals in the NHL going into Sunday. Colorado's penalty kill was also second in the league to the New York Rangers before giving up four PP markers to Edmonton.

So like I said above, the Avalanche probably won't finish with the best record in the NHL and aren't guaranteed to win their strong division. But through one-fifth of the season, the Avs have made a statement. They won't be doormats, they're playing sound hockey, they've got a hot goalie, and they're going to make life difficult for the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames the rest of the way.

Last season was the first bad one for this franchise since its move to Denver. We should have known they wouldn't stay down for very long.

Onto my Around Hockey Bullet Points:
  • I should have known I'd jinx the Bruins with my overly optimistic post. The B's lost three straight games this week, and went 192 minutes without scoring a goal during that stretch. Saturday night's 4-2, total team victory over Northeast-leading Buffalo last night was a great sign, and they scored more goals in that one game than in their previous four combined. Most promising was that they finally succeeded on the power play not once but twice, ending a truly embarrassing 0-for-20 streak that prompted this tweet while I was at work during the Montreal loss.
  • Boston will need to duplicate their Saturday effort on Tuesday when the Penguins invade TD Garden. Pittsburgh is tied with Washington for tops in the Eastern Conference. While the West has been fairly jumbled through the early stages of '09-'10, the East is playing out in a much more expected fashion, although I'll be shocked if the Lightning and Islanders remain seventh and eighth the rest of the way.
  • Last year's Western Conference champions, the Detroit Red Wings, came in with high expectations and haven't exactly lived up to them. Like the Bruins, they've had to deal with inconsistent play from their goaltenders and various injuries. The injury issues for Detroit run a bit deeper than what the Bruins have faced, however. They started the year without Darren "His Tears Cure Cancer" Helm. Johan Franzen tore his ACL in the third game of the season and he'll be out until February. Valtteri Filppula was poised for a career season before breaking his wrist and won't return until the end of December. Jason Williams broke his leg Saturday night against Toronto and is gone for two months (not to mention that they actually lost to Toronto and gave up five goals). Wings blog The Triple Deke came up with a possible lineup going forward (love the last name on there). Is Detroit in trouble? Not yet. But they will be if anyone named Datsyuk, Zetterberg or Lidstrom goes down.
  • We've seen some truly epic injuries in the NHL this year, along with different variations of the flu (David Krejci will hopefully be allowed to leave his H1N1 quarantine soon). One of the worst came Saturday night when Cam Ward's thigh was sliced open by Rick Nash's skate early in their contest in Columbus. Ward is expected to miss extended time. The Hurricanes have been a complete debacle this year, and while I'm pleased about that, I certainly wish the best for Ward. It'd be a shame if this injury kept him out of the Olympics.
  • Shawn Thornton is a beast. In Saturday's tilt with Buffalo, Thorty dropped the gloves with Steve Montador and issued a sound beatdown. I think he was channeling the rage of thousands of Bruins fans who hate Montador for his indescribably lousy play at the end of last year. But Thornton was just getting started. As the game was winding down, Thorty threw down with Paul Gaustad, and he fared worse than Montador. In short: don't fuck with Shawn Thornton. With Milan Lucic not likely to fight much upon his return, Thornton proved he can handle the fighting load.
That's all for now. Tune in next time for a very special post of Puckin' Right. (It probably won't be that special. I just wanted to make a very thin reference to the most underrated cartoon of all time, Clone High).

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