Avalanche netminder Semyon Varlamov has been a whirlwind between the pipes, taking victories in six straight starts while making 261 saves on 270 shots and posting a 0.99 goals-against average and .970 save percentage during that span.
He’s been so good that the NHL today named him the first star of the week for his play from Dec. 14-20, when he went 3-0-0 while allowing just two goals and snagging a shutout against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
“He’s the backbone of our team. He’s a quiet leader,” Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog said of the puck stopper. “He just goes about his business and works hard; one of the hardest working guys on the team, and that’s what you need from your goaltender. He’s been solid, and he just gives us that confidence that we need, no doubt.”
Confidence has been a big reason for not only Varlamov’s recent success, but that of the entire team. Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy has said numerous times that the team is gaining confidence from Varlamov’s play, and he echoed the statement again on Monday.
“I think confidence plays a big role. Just look at Varly, early in the season he was not playing with the same confidence,” Roy said after Colorado’s morning skate. “Right now, he’s big in the net. Everything seems pretty easy for him, and we’re feeding off of him right now. Goaltending is something very important in the game today. They certainly give you a chance to win every night, and that’s what you expect from your goalie.”
“I think it's no secret Varly’s been unbelievable the last little while, and it’s not really surprising,” rear guard Tyson Barrie said. “I think that’s how he’s played the last two years for us. He’s been our MVP. He’s been our best player. He’s just doing what Varly does. That’s obviously a key, and we can’t rely on that all the time. We’ve got to help him out as much as we can and score some goals.”
After going 5-7-1 to start the season, Varlamov has rumbled back with a league-leading (tied) 7-1-0 record in December. While his turnaround has certainly helped the Avalanche to get back within shouting distance of the playoff conversation, there isn’t exactly anything noticeable about what he’s doing differently now.
“He’s been so good the last few years, it’s no surprise he’s right back on top,” Barrie said before shouldering some of the weight of Colorado’s early woes. “Everybody goes through rough patches, whatever it is, whether you’re a player [or] goalie. You know what, we weren’t playing our best hockey either. We left him out to dry a few times or whatever it was, so it’s nice to see him back to playing how he usually does, and nobody in here’s surprised.”
Having faced 30 or more shots a total of five times in eight games in December, one thing the Avs said they would like to do is make sure there’s not a dependance on Varlamov to win the game.
“He’s a part of the team, just like anybody else. He does his part, and we do our part,” Landeskog said. “If everybody goes out there and just does their job, I think we’ll be fine. We’re not going to just sit back and trust Varly to make the saves. We want to make sure that we play with that lead and keep pounding the offensive zone and make sure that we use the offensive firepower that we have.”
“We’ve talked about it. Even this morning, we talked about some things we can do to help eliminate some shot attempts and try and hold back some scoring chances, whatever it is,” Barrie added. “As a defenseman especially, you have so much confidence in him back there. It’s pretty impressive what he can do. We’ve got all the confidence in the world, so we’re going to try our best to take the shots down and take the scoring chances down. But at the end of the day, we know he’s got our back.”
With the possibility of a sixth consecutive win on the horizon, Colorado will need to continue with its string of strong starts if it is to get some revenge on the Toronto Maple Leafs squad that stifled the Avalanche’s momentum that last time the two clubs met, on Nov. 17 in Ontario.
The Avs have registered the first goal of the match in seven straight games and have outscored the opposition 8-1 in the first period during the current five-game win streak.
“For us, it’s just a matter of finding that team confidence that we’ve had as of lately and making sure that we’re in the mix here come Christmas time,” Landeskog said. “Come January, we’ve got a lot of home games and we’ve got to make sure we take care of those. For us, a six-game streak here would be good, no doubt, but for us it’s just a matter of having a good start and not thinking too much about the outcome; just making sure that we focus on the process and we do the little things right. We know that we have a good enough group and we’re a deep enough team that we can win this game.
“I think that we’re prepared. We’ve been playing well as of lately, and we know what to do out there. We feel like we’re hungry, and we want to go for that sixth one. We’re not satisfied in any way. For us, it’s just like the other games. It’s been about having a good start and making sure that we set the pace early in the first period and how we go from there.”
Colorado isn’t the only team playing well prior to the brief holiday hiatus. Toronto is 3-0-2 in its previous five matches and will look to continue climbing the standings tonight at Pepsi Center.
“We’re in the battle for a playoff spot, like they’re trying [for]. The Leafs have been playing good hockey,” Roy said. “They’re working hard. They’re on the puck. The game we played there, they were sharp, and I expect them to do that [again]. I read something that they’re 3-0-2 in their last five games. It’ll be a good challenge for our team. It’s the last game before Christmas. There’s a lot of distraction, but we want to make sure we’re focused. We had a good talk this morning about it and making sure that we’re ready for tonight’s game.”
The Avs need to be hungry if they are to continue battling in the Central Division ranks, and that means working until the very end.
“You can’t be satisfied. We’re still not where we want to be in the standings, so we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Landeskog said. “For a team that’s still outside of a playoff spot, you can’t be satisfied in any way. For us, it’s just a matter of staying hungry and, whether we’ve had five in a row or lost five in row, it’s just a matter of being hungry and doing all the little things right.”