Out in the Western Conference this season we see the usual suspects like the Chicago Blackhawks, the San Jose Sharks and the St. Louis Blues among the leaders in the standings. But through five games there's one surprise team that's right there with them, and it's the Colorado Avalanche. After struggling the last few seasons this kind of 5-0-0 start is unexpected, but I think they're for real.
If you look at their goaltending, Semyon Varlamov's numbers have been fantastic, but even when he gets a night off Jean-Sebastien Giguere comes in to play one game and is awesome. The Avalanche have a backup goaltender that's won the Conn Smythe Trophy. Not many teams have that in hockey. Then you look at their defense. This was supposed to be their weakest link, but it's been very good so far. Everyone knew Colorado's forwards would score, but the defense and goaltending were expected to be weaknesses and they've actually been their strengths. Add that to their sheer talent up front after all the high draft picks they've had, and throw in what Patrick Roy has brought to the team as coach, and you've got a 5-0-0 record.
The Avalanche can score, but if it's a low-scoring game, they've now got the goaltending to compete and defensively they're committed. When you've drafted as high as the Avs have for as long as they have, you know you've got talent on your team. Next to the Edmonton Oilers, the Avs have had the highest picks in the NHL over the past five years and now that roster has Nathan MacKinnon, Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog on it, and don't forget Erik Johnson was a No. 1 pick by St. Louis. This team was always going to be talented, but it takes someone to bring that talent out. That's where Roy has come in. Roy has done a great job and you've got to give him the credit for this turnaround. When you look at this team vs. who was on the roster a year ago, the only real difference aside from drafting Nathan MacKinnon is Roy. He's come in and demanded work ethic, he's demanded preparation, he's demanded commitment to winning and he's getting all those things.
Roy set the tone for this team right off the bat with his confrontation with Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau opening night. He sent a message to his team and he changed the culture. If I was sitting on the bench and my coach stood up for me and did what Patrick did, that would have sent a great message to me. You can't do it all the time, and hopefully Roy will learn that, but it sent a great message to his young forwards that the coach isn't just an observer. He's in the battle, too. Add to that that people say you don't have to play in the NHL to be a coach, but when Patrick Roy walks in the room he gets instant respect. He doesn't have to prove anything to those players with what he accomplished in the League.
Singing the Blues
When the season started we all knew the Blues were going to be in the mix out west, but the Blues had a week showing they're right there with the League's elite. Before beating what should have been a very talented but desperate Rangers team on Saturday, they made a statement against the Blackhawks on Wednesday.
Now regarding the win against the Rangers, I know the Rangers are playing terribly, but they're still a veteran team and a playoff team that just got hammered twice. You would think they would come out desperate for a win, but the Blues held them in check. This came two days after a win against Chicago in which you could argue the Blues were outplayed and that goalie Jaroslav Halak was the difference, but two points are two points and the way St. Louis won sets a tone. Alexander Steen's goal in the final minute creates an emotional lift that can carry you through to other victories.
When you win a game like that you get confidence. You start believing in yourself. You start thinking you should win every night. Everybody hopes to win, but when you really get that mindset -- and good teams have that -- that's when you're dangerous. The Blackhawks think they should win every night. The Sharks think they should win every night. The Avalanche are starting to think that way and right now the Blues are getting to that point, too.
What the Devil is going on?
The New Jersey Devils might be the most perplexing team in the League so far this season. When you look at their schedule you see the Devils are 0-3-3, but it's the way they're losing that's bizarre. I don't think anyone expected this team to be able to score much, but that hasn't been the problem. The Devils are scoring. What's crazy is they're taking leads into the third period and blowing them.
New Jersey right now is 0-2-2 on its current road trip after losing at Winnipeg on Sunday, but the Devils had leads against the Calgary Flames, they had a third-period lead against Vancouver Canucks and in the first game of the trip they blew a three-goal lead in the third period against the Edmonton Oilers. The Devils have shown some offense this season, but their offense won't stay this potent forever. This is a team that can't afford to leave points on the table and if they're blowing leads like this they're in a lot of trouble.
There's a very real chance the Devils could go through a stretch where they're going to only score one or two goals a game for four or five games at a time. If they're losing games early in the season where they're scoring three or four goals a game, that's bad news.
What makes it so surprising is because this team wasn't really expected to score much, I would have thought they'd compensate by locking down defensively to guard 1-0 or 2-1 leads. That hasn't been the case. Instead, the Devils have been very sloppy defensively and not able to put a lid on the opposition. That's very uncharacteristic for the Devils. This is a team that's going to be fighting for the seventh or eighth playoff spot in the East at the end of the season. If they're going to make the playoffs, coach Peter DeBoer needs to get them recommitted to defense and back to being the old Devils. If he doesn't, these games will come back to haunt them.