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Finger Pickin' Good Road Trip

by Ryan Boulding / Colorado Avalanche

Playing much better hockey of late, the Colorado Avalanche needed a strong road trip through the Eastern Conference to build some momentum heading into the holiday break. That’s exactly what the club got, going 2-0-1 to bring home five of a possible six points.

After an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday and a hefty 5-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, the Avalanche needed a solid game against the Detroit Red Wings in the second of a back-to-back weekend to come out ahead.

While it took a shootout to get it done, Colorado finished on the right side of the 2-1 contest, one of the more important wins on the season.

“It’s really big. It’s one of the biggest of the year for us so far,” Iginla said of the win at Joe Louis Arena. “Being able to come on this road trip, some tough buildings to play [in], some teams that are hungry and have been playing well, and to be able to get five of six points gives us a chance to go home and keep climbing the standings.”

It was one of those hard-hitting, low-scoring affairs between the Red Wings and Avalanche on Sunday in Michigan; Detroit’s game plan no doubt designed to wear down an already tired Avs squad through physical play.

Unwilling to get pushed around, the Avs responded in kind, hammering the Red Wings often and unflinchingly, winning the checking battle 31-18 when the ice dust settled. But the bodily contact took its toll on Colorado, which seemed to tire as the game progressed.

Luckily, rookie goalie Calvin Pickard is young and playing like a veteran. Like he’s done so many times this season, he took over the game for the Avalanche, giving his squad a chance to win all the way through the end.

Pickard didn’t linger long when Pavel Datsyuk scored a power-play goal early in the third period to take the lead. Instead he continued to play twice his size in between the burgundy pipes, stopping everything else—34 shots in all—while the club fed off his effort.

“Pickard was without a doubt—in the first 10 minutes of the third—he was the star player for us, keeping us in the game and allowing us a chance to comeback in that game,” Avs coach Patrick Roy said of the 22-year-old tender. “What I liked the most was we stayed calm. Even if they had a great start, I thought we stayed calm and stayed composed. Just wanted to give ourselves a chance to get back. It’s a one-goal game. You never know, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Down but not out, the Avs tied the game with just over four minutes left when rear guard Erik Johnson’s shot from the point nipped twine behind Petr Mrazek. Colorado’s power-play tally came at the perfect time, with a strong push being rewarded in the twilight of the game when it mattered the most.

With the contest tied and neither goalie giving another inch, the shootout was the perfect opportunity for both to shine. Each side allowed two tallies to make it interesting, stopping the next five before Jarome Iginla got the game winner.

The 37-year-old shared a funny moment following match as he wasn’t sure the puck went in based on the crowd’s reaction.

Said Iginla: “At first I thought it went in and then the crowd was cheering, and I wasn’t sure if it did go in. So I was pretty excited when it did.”

That left Pickard to make the final stop, on Brendan Smith, which he did expertly.

With the win in the books, some of the attention was on Pickard, who has really shined for Colorado in each of his three recalls from the Lake Erie Monsters.

“He’s so calm, cool, collected. He plays the puck well and he competes on every puck. It’s been great to see,” said Iginla, who has certainly seen his share of netminders in the league. “You don’t expect that, as good as he’s been. You always expect great, but every game… He’s won a lot of games for us, and given us a chance.

“It’s fun to see. It’s great to see. He works so hard, and he just comes in, he’s so laid back. It’s awesome for him.”

Pickard’s play is just one aspect of the Avalanche game that has been coming together in this middle stretch of the 2014-15 season.

“We’ve been working on a lot. I think our breakouts are getting better, our neutral zone—we’ve talked about it a lot,” said Iginla. “When you play teams like the Red Wings tonight, you’re either going to chase them or they’re going to chase you if you give them the puck too many times.

“It’s a work in progress, but our confidence is coming. We’re battling back, and this is a big win. This was not pretty but a very important one for us.”

According to Roy, the back-to-back scenario had an impact on the club, but the quality of play was good enough to bring a victory.

“Obviously we played last night in Buffalo and these guys were waiting for us. I thought we were playing well defensively,” said Roy. “Yeah, we gave a few chances, but I thought it was a pretty good game.”

Colorado will look to continue climbing the standings on Tuesday with its third matchup this season against the St. Louis Blues.

McLeod Milestone

It isn’t everyday that an undrafted player finds a lasting home in the NHL, let alone plays his way into a leadership role, but that hasn’t stopped Avalanche forward and alternate captain Cody McLeod.

McLeod

Signed as a free agent at age 22 by the Colorado Avalanche (in 2006), McLeod has donated much blood, sweat and tears to his club, a gladiator for his team in the truest sense of the word. He sacrifices his body whenever called upon, whether by blocking shot after shot—as he did on Sunday—or by throwing down and fighting any and all comers to defend a teammate or energize the roster.

McLeod’s first NHL goal came on Dec. 27, 2007 against Dominik Hasek and the Detroit Red Wings—in his fourth game—so it was fitting that he reached another career milestone against the once-rival Red Wings. McLeod played in his 500th NHL game on Sunday night, a testament to his importance with the team.

He’s spent his entire career with the Avs, amassing 52 goals, 44 assists and 1,054 penalty minutes—many of those fighting majors. He also has two goals, three points, and 53 PIMs in 23 playoff contests.

Varlamov Update

Semyon Varlamov has been a hot topic this season, missing time on three separate occasions due to a lingering groin injury. Given the way that Pickard has been playing, many are wondering what the future of both will be when Varlamov is ready to play again.

Pickard

Many expected Pickard to return to the Monsters when his latest support stretch was concluded, but that may not be the case now.

“We’re not sending Pickard down,” said Roy after the game. “At this time, we’re not going to send him down, and we’ll make a decision… in time. For now, we’re not making any decision.”

Pickard will likely remain with the Avalanche until the club is certain that Varlamov has fully recovered and can handle the majority of the workload. That doesn’t mean that Varlamov has lost his starting gig.

“Let’s not forget what Varly did for us last year,” said Roy. “Varly played so well for us. He was the reason why we had 112 points. He was the reason why we won our division. Let’s not forget what he did for us.

“If he is ready, he will play against the Blues.”

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