For the first time since opening night, the future is wide open for the Colorado Avalanche. After a slow start to the 2015-16 campaign, the Avs awoke Sunday morning to find out that they officially occupied a spot in the playoffs as the second wild card in the Western Conference.
Now, the team needs to keep up the effort that has seen points awarded in 11 of the past 13 contests.
“We’re feeling good. Obviously, we woke up today in a playoff spot for the first time all year, which is a great feeling,” forward Matt Duchene said on Sunday. “That’s kind of where you want to be at the halfway point. Now, it’s just a matter of not looking back. We’ve got to keep on pushing.”
While there is a sense of accomplishment in working its way back into playoff contention—a Nashville Predators loss on Saturday night gave the Avalanche the edge—the squad knows that the hard work isn’t over yet.
“I feel like we’ve come a long way since the start of the season,” Blake Comeau said. “It’s important for us to keep winning, climbing the standings and trying to catch some other teams.”
That will be the case tonight as Colorado faces the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks tonight for the third time this season and the second at United Center in the Windy City.
“We put ourselves in a good situation where we can finally breathe a little bit and keep working hard at the same time,” said veteran rear guard Francois Beauchemin. “I think we’ve started to understand how we have to play. Again, tonight is another good test.”
Chicago is 8-2-0 in its last 10 games, has won six straight matches and will certainly be one of many tough contests in the days ahead.
“I think it’s important for us now to regroup today and be ready for a strong game against the Blackhawks. This is a very good hockey team. This is a team on a roll,” Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy said. “They’ve been playing some good hockey. We’re going to have to be extremely sharp if we want to win here in this building.”
Chicago owns the third-ranked power play in the league (22.5 percent success)—although it sits 17th at home (18.6)—and the third-ranked penalty-killing unit (89.1) at home.
“There's no easy game in this league anymore.” Roy said. “You have to be sharp, and I think our guys are getting into some kind of routine right now. They come to play and they play hard.
“When you think about a month and a half ago, we were like 10 points behind Nashville. Today, we’re in the playoffs. It’s quite an accomplishment for our group, but unfortunately there’s still some 40 games to play. We’re going to have to remain very humble and very smart in every game we’re going to play until the end of the year.”
One player that has been a keystone for Colorado when it comes to facing Chicago is goaltender Semyon Varlamov. The 27-year-old Russian netminder is 8-0-1 with a 1.48 goals-against average and .961 save percentage in his last 10 appearances (nine starts) against the Blackhawks. Varlamov is also nearly unstoppable at United Center, boasting a 7-1-0 record, a 1.42 goals-against average and .961 save percentage in nine career games in Illinois. That includes a current five-game winning streak where he owns a fantastic 0.99 goals-against average and a .975 save percentage.
Even if Varlamov only provides a mental edge entering Sunday’s contest, it’s still something the Avs can use to build a strong performance on.
“We’ve got to continue to push hard here and give ourselves a lead as much as possible,” Duchene said.
If history offers any comfort, the Avalanche could be trending in the right direction. The team once began a club-record 12-game winning streak with a 3-2 overtime win at Chicago on this day in 1999.