The Colorado Avalanche opened its 2014 training camp on Friday, and it was tough to not notice all the smiles from players, coaches and the fans that packed the bleachers at Family Sports Center.
"I think we're all excited to be coming back, finally, and start the training together," goaltender Semyon Varlamov said. "It's nice to see the boys in the locker room. I've been waiting for this moment for four or five months, been training a lot during the summer. Right now I feel like I want to play the game."
The last time the Avs ran organized drills from the coaches was late April, but most of the player looked like they were in midseason form with strong skating and smooth shots on the first day.
"It's exciting," center Matt Duchene said of being back at the rink with his teammates. "It's a long summer. I put in the work I usually do in the summer. It's a 12-month job now. You take some time off after the season, but as soon as you start training it's hammer down and it's a marathon and a sprint at the same time toward camp. Glad that race is over and excited to start a new one."
This year's training camp has a bit of a different feel to it than previous camps as it's only two days long, and has a strong focus on scrimmaging and getting the players game-ready.
The 67 players were broken into four teams (Blue, Burgundy, Black and Gray) with two squads participating in an early session while the other two took part in a later one. The sessions began with a 45-minute practice on the Hamilton ice sheet where they worked on one-on-one transitions and one-on-one and two-on-two drills in defensive zone coverage, an area that was a staple of head coach Patrick Roy's coaching last season.
After a quick break, both teams moved over to the main Avalanche ice sheet for a scrimmage that would determine who has the early session on Saturday and who would be in the later practice, which features the Avs' training camp 'championship game.'
"What I like with the format we are using this year, four teams, less than three lines (per team), eight forwards—except for one team—five to six D's," Roy said. "They are on the ice a lot during the scrimmage, but I also want to see things we are practicing on and, at the same time, see the younger guys. It was fun to watch Conner Bleackley today, Chris Bigras. These are guys that we have great expectations for."
Roy said he was happy overall with how the first day of camp went, as the coaches emphasized to the players and seemed to fully embrace what the Avalanche has gained a reputation of being the last couple of years: a fast club.
"The guys were very receptive," Roy said. "They work hard. They were working on the finesse part of the game, but our D-zone coverage, the angle we want our guys to work on in our D-zone. We also wanted to play fast. I think this is part of our identity. We want to be a fast team, but not just fast skating wise, but also making quick decisions with the puck and be able to react well."
The scrimmages featured three 15-minute periods with a running clock, and instead of power plays, players received a penalty. Only one penalty shot was awarded during the two games, as Max Iafrate of Team Gray hooked Mitchell Heard of Team Black in the later game.
All seven goalies saw action during the scrimmage and made on-the-fly changes from their team benches every five minutes, except for Reto Berra who is the only netminder on Team Burgundy.
Team Blue 4, Team Burgundy 3 – Shootout
Just like the Avalanche did plenty of times last year, Team Blue never gave up and pulled out a trip to Saturday's title game with a 5-4 shootout victory over Team Burgundy.
It appeared as if Burgundy was going to get the win after Karl Stollery and Gabriel Landeskog scored goals roughly 90 seconds apart in the third period, but Cody McLeod scored the tying goal with less than 30 seconds left while Team Blue had the extra attacker on the ice to force a tiebreaker shootout.
Team Blue won 1-0 in the shootout after Ryan O'Reilly scored the only goal in the first round. Matt Duchene and Zach Redmond missed on their attempts for Team Blue, while Landeskog, Joey Hishon and Alex Tanguay missed on their shootout tries for Team Burgundy.
Landeskog scored the first goal of the game as he was on the left wing of a line featuring Joey Hishon at center and Alex Tanguay on the left side. It was Tanguay's first real practice with the club since missing the end of last season with hip and knee injuries.
"[Tanguay] played really well with Landy. Landy was sharp too," Roy said. "Last year they really clicked well together…It's going to be fun seeing Nate [MacKinnon] go with these guys and see Jarome [Iginla] going with Dutchy (Matt Duchene) and Ryan [O'Reilly]."
Roy said he was going to use those top two forward combinations for the Sunday's Burgundy/White intra-squad game and possibly for the season opener.
Landeskog and Karl Stollery each finished with a goal and an assist for Burgundy, while Garrett Meurs and Marc-Andre Cliche scored for Blue.
Colorado's amateur scouts Neil Shea (Blue) and Rick Lanz (Burgundy) coached the squads.
Team Black 4, Team Gray 2
A strong final push by Team Black was the difference as it scored three of the final four goals to defeat Team Gray 4-2.
Trevor Cheek scored his second goal of the game nearly five minutes into the third period, giving Team Black a 3-1 lead, but even when Daniel Maggio scored for Team Gray with 5:22 remaining, the final result didn't seem in doubt.
Daniel Briere secured the game for Black with an empty-net tally with 1:34 left, while his former and now current teammate Maxime Talbot also scored on a slick backhand shot after grabbing a loose puck and charging toward the front of the net midway in the second period.
Andrew Agozzino scored the other goal for Team Gray, playing left wing on a line that had Nathan MacKinnon at center and Jarome Iginla at right wing.
Team Blue's coach Neil Shea was pulling double duty as he was also behind the bench for Team Gray during the second scrimmage. Scout John Harrington coached Team Black.
The practice portion of training camp comes to a close on Saturday at Family Sports Center with the same format from the first day.
Players of Team Burgundy and Team Gray will take part in a joint practice on Hamilton Ice at 9:30 a.m. before playing in the third-place scrimmage on Avalanche Ice at 10:30 a.m.
Team Black and Team Blue square off in the championship game at 12:45 p.m. on Avalanche Ice after participating in their practice session with the coaches at 11:45 a.m. on Hamilton Ice.
All practices at Family Sports Center are free and open to the public.
The official end to training camp is the annual Burgundy/White Game at the University of Denver on Sunday. Puck drop for the intra-squad matchup is at 11 a.m. and will feature a shootout at the end of the game, no matter what the score is after regulation.