TAMPA, Fla.--The Colorado Avalanche's season to this point may not seem all that challenging with it currently sporting a 6-0-1 record, but the club's schedule has had its share of tough opponents.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, the defending Presidents' Trophy winners that recorded 128 points--21 more than the league's second-place team--last season is the next tough test for the Avs in the early campaign. Tampa Bay has a 4-2-1 record this season and is coming off two consecutive wins to end a six-game road trip.
"I watched Tampa play all last year and the consistency of their game, playing at home, playing on the road, coming off road trips, after breaks, and they're as consistent as any team in the league," said Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar.
The NHL might have the most parity among any of the four major professional leagues, as at least five new teams have made the playoffs each year since 2013-14. However, Colorado's schedule through seven games has undoubtably featured some of the league's best squads over the past several years, and so far the club has aced the exam.
"We're fortunate to start with a four-game homestand, we make the most of it, and now we're on the road and have competed real hard and have found ways to win some hockey games here." Bednar said. "Looking at the big picture, you got to be pretty happy with the way we've been playing."
In the first two-plus weeks of the season, the Avalanche has skated against the 2019 Eastern Conference champions (Boston Bruins), the best team in the Western Conference during last year's regular season (Calgary Flames) and the Stanley Cup champions in three of the previous four campaigns (2018, Washington Capitals; 2016 and 2017, Pittsburgh Penguins).
In addition, the Avs have also played the arch-rival Minnesota Wild, the Arizona Coyotes--a club they battled with for the last playoff spot in 2019--and, most recently on Friday night, a matchup with the up-and-coming and talented Florida Panthers.
The Avalanche has picked up points in all seven of those outings, tied for the franchise's second-longest point streak to begin a campaign, giving the squad some confidence facing the Lightning.
"When good teams meet it's usually a good game," said defenseman Ryan Graves of playing Tampa Bay. "I think you rise up for the game and you're ready and you're excited. I think start of the year, you test your team and see where you're at as a measure to other teams. We're excited to play them."
Colorado has Stanley Cup aspirations this season, and the same can be said for the Lightning, which has won the Atlantic Division the past two years and has appeared in the postseason in five of the last six campaigns.
Tampa's Bolts returned almost the entirely same roster as they had last season and enter 2019-20 with something to prove after being swept in four games by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the 2019 playoffs.
"What I like most about their team is that I find that their top-end players are skilled players, the guys they rely to make plays, they work real hard," Bednar said. "They compete hard on pucks, second and third effort in battles. They play the right way, they're tough to generate offense against. It's a real deep, well-rounded lineup, and we're going to need to show the same thing tonight in order to beat them.
"We got to manage the puck properly and got to make sure we're playing the right way from start to finish. Putting together a full 60 minutes tonight will be real important for our team."
The Avalanche's game in Tampa is the club's fourth stop of a six-city road trip, the squad's longest of the season, and it doesn't get any easier after Saturday. Colorado plays at the division rival St. Louis Blues, the reigning Stanley Cup champs, on Monday and the Vegas Golden Knights on Friday before finally resuming its home slate.
Going through a stretch like this can pay dividends for the Avs, as it helps show what they still need to do to not only to have a successful season, but hopefully one that goes well into the springtime.
"We're happy with our record, but we still have things to work on and we're not happy with the way we've played, not a complete 60 minutes in most games so far," Graves said. "I think that is going to be a huge focus for us moving forward. We have a lot of skill and a lot of talent in this room, we're a good team, but we need to play a full 60 to beat good teams."