For the Colorado Avalanche, the first few shifts of the last two games have gone both ways. On Sunday, Jarome Iginla scored 30 seconds into the match against the visiting Columbus Blue Jackets, taking an early lead that Colorado was ultimately unable to maintain. On Tuesday night in Chicago, goals from Nathan MacKinnon and Maxime Talbot in the first 77 seconds proved the difference maker in a 2-0 shutout victory.
Regardless of the outcome, this kind of initial effort is something that the Avs are looking to continue doing moving into tonight’s matchup against the Ottawa Senators.
“I think that’s just a focus thing, right off the hop being ready, but we don’t have any witch doctors in here getting us ready for the game or anything crazy like that,” defenseman Nate Guenin said of the good starts recently. “It’s just the guys being focused and being professional and coming ready for the puck drop.
“We want to replicate those starts. We know we can do it. We know we’re capable of coming out fast.
“It gives you confidence.”
Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog recognizes the importance of being ready when the puck drops, though he admits that tempered expectations are required.
“You always want to have a good start, but at the same time you’re not going to score two goals every minute and a half like we did last game in Chicago,” Landeskog said. “That was a fun building to play in, and to take the energy and the crowd out of it early, that makes a big difference.
“Tonight, we want to do the exact opposite. We want to get everybody into it, [have] a few big shifts and get in on that forecheck. We feel like every time we get in on that forecheck well and place pucks well in the offensive zone… we can establish some pressure. That’s been key lately.”
A fast start isn’t enough in the NHL these days. Beating an opponent takes now a full 60 minutes of top-notch effort.
So what’s the recipe for such an outing against Ottawa?
“Playing the right way, getting pucks deep [and] not turning pucks over. When you’re turning pucks over, you’re playing in your D-zone a lot and then you’re chasing the game,” said Guenin. “We want to play that fast style. Playing fast isn’t just skating 100 miles an hour. It’s moving the puck, and when you keep going North, you wear teams down. So that’s something we want to do.”
That’s the game plan for tonight’s 7 p.m. matchup versus the Senators.
“Ottawa, they’re kind of in the same situation we are. They’ve been up and down all season,” said Landeskog. “We want to make sure that we’re good here on home ice and keep this thing going. I think we’re playing pretty solid hockey as of late, and we want to keep that going.”
“I want to make sure we continue to focus on what we’ve been doing well in our last 12 games. Obviously, we’d certainly like to score more goals, especially at home. There’s key moments in the game where, if we could score that goal, it could make a big difference in the outcome of games,” said head coach Patrick Roy. “I like the way we’ve been playing lately. We’re 7-3-2 in our last 12 games. It’s something that I think we can build around.”
With 40 games under its belt this season, the Avalanche is officially at the halfway point of the 2014-15 campaign. The start wasn’t what the club wanted, but the team has been better lately and the Avs (16-16-8) are now back at .500 for the third time this season.
“It has been rough for us to get over that hump this year. Every time we got to .500, we took a couple steps back,” said veteran Alex Tanguay. “In the NHL, you’ve got to come out and play every single night. If you don’t, you’re not going to be successful.
“When we look at the standings, we’re not where we need to be,” Tanguay added. “We need more… We know where we stand, so tonight’s another big test for us.”
Colorado sits just seven points out of a playoff spot with half the season left to play, and players credit a renewed focus on specific stretches of games—versus a final point total—for the chance to keep fighting.
“You take it three or five games at a time, or whatever, and you focus on a certain amount of points that you want to set as a goal for the team,” said Landeskog. “That’s going to make it easier than just saying we’ve got to get 50 points to make the playoffs or 100 or whatever.
“The last few weeks, we’ve grown as a team, and we’ve gotten better as the season’s gone along. But we certainly want to improve, and we know that we have to improve to get to the playoffs.”
Varlamov of Yesteryear
It’s hard to look at goaltender Semyon Varlamov’s 54-save shutout of the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night and not be amazed at his performance between the pipes. For Avs fans, that’s the kind of show he put on more often than not during the previous season, which saw him finish runner up for the Vezina Trophy at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas.
Goalie - COL
GAA: 2.79 | Sv%: .918
Varlamov took over the contest in Chicago, proving that he would ride the quick, two-goal lead to the promised land on the other side of the third-period buzzer.
“He was out of his mind, thank God for us. We certainly didn’t play up to the standard that we need to play in order to beat a team like Chicago,” said Tanguay. “But it’s like a good pitcher in baseball, it’s like a good QB in football. If you have a good goaltender on every single night, you're going to get a chance to win. That’s what Varly did. He won that game by himself.
“He knew what he had to do, and he did it. We all had confidence in him.”
When asked about what you say as a player to your goalkeeper after an exhausting effort like that, Tanguay implied that words don’t really do it justice.
“You just hand him water, making sure he’s getting ready for the next one because, obviously, we all want to play a little bit better,” Tanguay said. “We all like to score six, seven goals and win the 7-1 games and make it an easy game for Varly, but it’s not always the case.”
When evaluating a performance like Varlamov’s, it’s easy to look at the 54 shots on goal—upwards of 90 attempts in all—and be concerned, but there’s more that factors into a win like that.
“Obviously, when you hear the number 54 shots after 60 minutes, that’s a lot. But at the same time, the number of quality shots that they got is low,” said Landeskog. “They’re a team that shoots a lot of pucks and takes a lot of shots on net and really tries to create a lot of rebounds and bounces their way. That’s a good way to play.
“We kept most of the shots to the outside. Fifty-four shots, I don’t know if that’s accurate or not, but I think Varly certainly played a really good game. He really took care of the first shots, and we took care of the rebounds and we tried to let him see everything. Certainly, he was solid.”
For Roy, the shot total at the end of the night is less telling than the number of scoring chances that an opponent managed to accrue.
“We focus a lot on puck possession. We focus a lot on scoring chances against. In that game we gave up 20 [scoring chances]. When we give up 10-15, we’re fine with it,” said Roy. “Obviously, when we give 20, we know it’s too much. We gave five on their power play and 15 at even strength. Is it too much? Yeah it was too much, but that’s a game like this. Chicago is a special team. It’s a team that has so much skill.
“I’m happy to see Varly playing that well. I think it’s going to bring a lot of confidence to our team as well. When your goalie plays a type of game like this, obviously we’re aware that it’s two points that would have been very difficult to have without a performance like that.”
Roy said he has no reservations starting Varlamov again tonight, as the 26-year-old Russian has had plenty of time to recover.
“Varly’s a strong person, and yesterday he had a day off. I asked him how he felt this morning and he said ‘Great. Very good,’” said Roy. “We need our No. 1 goalie right now. We’re back at .500 for the third time this year, and this is an opportunity for us to play a strong game tonight and try to play one game over .500.
“As a goalie, when you get on a streak where you feel you’re in the zone, you want to play. You don’t want to hear your coach saying ‘oh you had 54 shots, maybe I should give you a day off.’ He wants the net. He wants to play. He missed a lot of games. I’m not sure, if [former Avs coach] Bob Hartley would have pulled me after a 54-shot shutout, [that] I’d be a very happy person.”