With the New Year just around the corner, it's often a time for reflection for many people, businesses and even sports teams. For the Colorado Avalanche, it's a period where the club looks back at the last 12 months, where it is currently and where it wants to go in 2016.
It was an up and down 2015 for Colorado, but the team appears confident it is heading in the right direction for the remainder of the present campaign. Despite a tough start to the 2014-15 season, the Avs battled back into playoff contention but fell short of a bid in the tough Central Division.
The Avalanche's 2015-16 had the same beginning, but the club has responded with a 9-3-1 record in the month of December and is just five points behind the Nashville Predators for a wild-card berth into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"We have had some ups and downs in 2015," said Colorado forward Nathan MacKinnon. "I think the positive thing is that we've been good lately. We didn't make the playoffs (last season), but we're pushing right now and we're close to it. I guess in terms of that standpoint, it's been pretty fun."
The Avs can make this December one of the best in franchise history and continue closing the gap on the Preds with a New Year's Eve win tonight against the Chicago Blackhawks. A Colorado victory would equal the franchise record for wins (10) in the month and would be its highest points percentage in December (.750).
It is the second meeting against the defending Stanley Cup champions this season, and the Avalanche looks to duplicate its success from 16 days ago when it won 3-0 in Chicago.
"This is an important game for us, and I think what the key is, is to focus," said head coach Patrick Roy. "It's New Year's Eve, there are a lot of distractions. We just want to remain focused, have the right mindset going into this game and think about what we need to do and how we want to play the game. This is a very good hockey club. They have a lot of talent, great depth."
In that first matchup on Dec. 15, Semyon Varlamov made 29 saves for his first shutout of the season and the Avs kept the dynamic Blackhawks to just 60 total shot attempts—a fairly low number considering that Chicago trailed by two goals for most of the contest.
"We just had a five-man unit. Everyone was working hard," said Avalanche defenseman Brandon Gormley on what worked in that previous contest. "The forwards were playing back, allowing us to stand up. If you give these guys time and space, they're going to make plays. They're going to put shots on net. Obviously a very skilled, offensive team, we need the same thing today. We need to play good as a five-man unit out there and try to limit their chances, and at the same time capitalize on our chances as well."
Colorado expects Chicago to play a different kind of game this time around.
"It's always tough to play these guys. They always play well here, I think," MacKinnon said.
"We have to worry about [Patrick] Kane and [Artemi] Panarin and obviously [Jonathan] Toews, [Marian] Hossa, those guys. They're going to be controlling the play, and we got to stop them and try and take some [shots] ourselves."
This evening marks just the fourth time that the Avalanche has played at home on New Year's Eve. Colorado is 3-1-0 in those games, which includes a 4-3 overtime win last year versus the Philadelphia Flyers and a 5-2 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2013. The Avs have played on New Year's Eve 12 times overall since moving to Denver in 1995, posting a 7-4-1 record.
For many of the Avalanche players, a day doesn't go by where they aren't thankful for playing in the NHL. Nathan MacKinnon and Brandon Gormley are two of those Avs.
MacKinnon, who was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2013 and won the 2014 Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, experienced plenty of highs and lows in the 2015 calendar year. He statistically had a down season in 2014-15 but was beginning to turn it up offensively when a broken foot ended his NHL campaign prematurely.
The 20-year-old has responded this season by leading the club in scoring with 33 points (13 goals and 20 assists), but he recently experienced a 14-game goalless drought before breaking out on Monday with a hat trick in San Jose.
"It's been a fun year," MacKinnon said. "Definitely thankful for that. Myself being so young, being able to play here is pretty cool."
Gormley is thankful for getting a chance with the Avalanche. After only playing in 32 games over the past two seasons with the Arizona Coyotes, he was acquired by Colorado just before training camp and has appeared in 24 contests so far this year.
"Hockey life, you never know what is going to happen," he said. "You just have to come to work every day and put your best foot forward. Things obviously didn't work out in Arizona, and I'm grateful to get a fresh start. It's a great young team here. We're all growing together, and we're coming along as the season is progressing. It's exciting to be a part of, and at the same time we got to take it each day and get better as a team."
Gormley will play in his third straight outing tonight after being a healthy scratch for four contests. He'll be on the third defensive pairing with Zach Redmond.
Gabriel Landeskog—Carl Soderberg—Blake Comeau
Andreas Martinsen—John Mitchell—Matt Duchene
Alex Tanguay—Nathan MacKinnon—Jarome Iginla
Cody McLeod—Mikhail Grigorenko—Jack Skille
Francois Beauchemin—Erik Johnson
Nick Holden—Tyson Barrie
Brandon Gormley—Zach Redmond