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Avalanche Rolling Entering Holiday Break

by Ron Knabenbauer / Colorado Avalanche

The best gift the Avs might have received for the holidays is the one they gave themselves.

The Colorado Avalanche is playing with a lot of confidence and its 5-0 victory on Tuesday night against the St. Louis Blues at Pepsi Center was further proof. The team extended its win streak to three games and has now picked up points in six consecutive outings (4-0-2).

In the final game before the three-day NHL Holiday Break, the Avs scored early and kept finding the back of the net as the contest progressed. The home team outshot St. Louis 41-26, found power play success, had a strong possession game and received stellar goaltending from Semyon Varlamov.

"It was important to win a big game at home. That was what I was looking at," Colorado head coach Patrick Roy said. "Beating these guys 5-0, it was an off night for them but at the same time we played really well. Winning the game at home was the important thing. This morning it seemed like we were very confident, and we played with a lot of confidence."

After being close twice before but not being able to get past two consecutive victories, the Avs are finally on their longest winning streak of the year and have reached the .500-mark for the first time with a 13-13-8 record (34 points).

Having three days between games might diminish the momentum a bit, but all 30 teams in the league are dealing with the same break and the Avs will certainly take the rest.

"We worked hard to get back to .500, but also to have a little push before Christmas and give us a chance to make a run after Christmas," said right wing Jarome Iginla, who scored late in the second period to make it a 5-0 game and erase any thought of a comeback by the Blues. "I think we'll enjoy that. We're a skilled team in here that we need to work hard, but we got to feel good about ourselves and be confident too and I think that is starting to come. The combination has been there, and we want to keep it when we come back."

With so many players with a track record of scoring, it has been a bit of a surprise the team hasn't had more success on the power play this season. Colorado entered the game 26th in the league, tallying at a 13-percent success rate, but may be turning a corner.

The Avs scored twice against the Blues with the man advantage—tying a season high—and have now tallied on the power play in three consecutive games (also tying a season high) and have five extra-man goals in the last five games.

"We realize the importance of the power play, and we should be a better power play team than we have been," Iginla said. "Guys are feeling better all the way around, our whole game, and I think that is carrying over to the power play. Guys are working hard, but at the same time they are holding it when they should and moving it when they should and making some nice plays."

When the Avs get back to work on Saturday morning, it will be in preparation for that night's game versus the Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago leads the Central Division with 48 points and is 7-2-1 in its last 10 games. Colorado lost 3-2 in the teams' previous meeting on Nov. 26.

Defenseman Erik Johnson said the team would enjoy the break, but that the players need to be smart on how they handle the upcoming days in preparation for one of the league's best squads.

"You have to use it wisely," Johnson said. "You have to take care of your body. You have to get a couple workouts in. You just can't stuff your face with food and sit on the couch and do that stuff… Enjoy your time off but do the right things and get ready."

Colorado is playing its best hockey of the year right now, and doing it against quality teams. During its six-game point streak, five of the opponents were in a playoff position and the other one (Buffalo) had gone 10-4 in its previous 14 games.

The recent success the club is having should definitely make for a better time celebrating the holidays with family and friends.

"We have three nice days off," Roy said. "We gave ourselves a nice gift before Christmas: .500 hockey for the first time of the year. Now let's not look behind, let's look ahead and be ready for Chicago. It will be another good test. We talked this morning about the schedule and how tough the schedule is right now, and it's a good challenge for our team. Tonight we responded well to it."

VINTAGE VARLY

Goaltender Semyon Varlamov looked like his Vezina Trophy-finalist self from last season.

Varlamov stopped all 26 shots in his first game back after missing the last six contests with a groin injury. It was his second shutout of the season and 15th of his NHL career.

“It does feel good, to be honest with you. I’m really happy today after all that," Varlamov said. "We played as a team and played a really solid game. We played really hard the whole 60 minutes.”

He wasn't tested early as he only faced seven shots in each of the first and second periods, but he seemed to get more relaxed and regain some of his timing in the cage as the game went on and as his teammates kept scoring.

"It is much easier to play when the guys score lots of goals," he said

Varlamov last played Dec. 5 at Winnipeg and had missed 12 of the last 14 contests due to groin injuries, which had sent him to the injured-reserve list three times this year.

Calvin Pickard, who had played all six games for the Avs while Varlamov was out, was the backup for the night. Colorado currently has three goalies on its active roster, but the 22-year-old won't be sent to Lake Erie in the American Hockey League before the three-day holiday break.

Roy has said Pickard will remain with the team for the time being and will play in the game on Saturday against the Blackhawks.

It appears as if the Avs will be rotating goalies for the next couple games until the team is fully confident that Varlamov is 100 percent healthy and can handle the full starting workload.

He sure looked healthy after Tuesday's performance.

D-MEN DOING WORK

The Avs continued to find offense from their blue line as defensemen Erik Johnson and Zach Redmond scored in the first period against St. Louis.

The Blues' 2006 No. 1 overall pick, Johnson, opened the scoring in the first period at 15:02 for the Avalanche with a wrist shot from the top of the left circle that made its way through traffic and into the top corner of the cage.

Johnson now has nine goals this season, tying his total from last season and is just one short of his career high of 10 (2009-10 with St. Louis). He also tallied two goals in Colorado's last game against St. Louis on Dec. 13 and has recorded five goals and six points in his last five contests.

Redmond scored his fourth of the season 3:43 after Johnson's tally, receiving a cross-ice pass from Ryan O'Reilly and throwing the puck into a gaping net at the back door. He is tied for the team lead with a plus-5 rating.

Colorado defensemen have now tallied 18 goals and 66 points this season.

STUART HONORED

Colorado defenseman Brad Stuart appeared in his 1,000th NHL contest last Thursday in Pittsburgh, but he was recognized in front of the home crowd for the achievement prior to Tuesday's game.

Stuart, his wife Melissa, and his two sons Jake and Logan—who were Avalanche youth skaters for the game—were honored on the ice before faceoff. Team captain Gabriel Landeskog presented Melissa with flowers on behalf of the organization and Brad with a commemorative Rolex on behalf of his teammates.

The Rocky Mountain House, Alberta native was also given a Tiffany crystal on behalf of the NHL and fellow 1,000-games club member Jarome Iginla presented him with the traditional silver stick.

The 35-year-old is the 293rd player in NHL history, and the 100th defenseman to play in 1,000 contests.

Stuart's big night was just getting started. He picked up his first points of the season during the game with assists on second-period goals by Alex Tanguay and Ryan O'Reilly. It was Stuart’s first multi-point effort since March 5, 2013 at Vancouver as a member of the San Jose Sharks.

"I was very impressed with Brad Stuart," Roy said. "The ceremony before the game was great. He had two assists, blocked lots of shots. Since he's back, he's been helping our blue line big time."

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