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The Avalanche Return

by Ron Knabenbauer / Colorado Avalanche

In the playoffs, it's a fresh start.

It doesn't matter how many goals were scored, what a team's record was, or what its statistics were like during the season. When the playoffs come, everything is reset to zero.

After a three-year absence, the Colorado Avalanche is back in the postseason but the team's success the last six months doesn't mean anything if the club can't continue it in the playoffs.

“You have to really follow the game plan and trust in the coaches that they have the right game plan for us," said Avs defenseman Andre Benoit of playoff hockey. "We have to execute and be ready every night because series change quick, and there’s not a big margin for error. We have to come out of the game flying.”

The Avalanche is in the playoffs for the 13th time in 18 seasons since moving to Denver, and the organization is well aware that when games are played in late April, May and early June that the intensity is heightened and everybody is giving it their all on each shift. Everything is magnified in the postseason: the goals, the passes, the saves, and the wins and losses. First team to win four games advances.

"It’s fun. It’s always tough when you’re playing the same team over and over again, four or five or six, seven games," Colorado alternate captain Paul Stastny said. "You beat up on each other, and each win is that much sweeter than the one before. It’s something that you can’t really explain. You go out there and just enjoy it.”

Stasnty is one of the players who has been there before, as he played in 15 career playoff games entering this year's tournament. However, the outside view on the 2013-14 Avalanche is that it lacks playoff experience.

The team last played in the postseason in 2010 when it lost in a hard-fought six games to the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. Only five players remain from that series: Matt Duchene, Cody McLeod, Ryan O'Reilly, Stastny and Ryan Wilson, with only Stastny and McLeod having played more than six career playoff games entering this year's tournament.

However, to think that Colorado lacks postseason experience is just not true.

Over the last few years the Avs have been building a roster of veterans who have been there and will be key to the team's playoff success. Cory Sarich (2004), Maxime Talbot (2009), Jean-Sebastien Giguere (2007) and Alex Tanguay (2001) have all won Stanley Cups, while John Mitchell (18 games), Jamie McGinn (22 games) and Semyon Varlamov (19 games) have made deep runs with former teams as well.

Last summer, Colorado added Benoit, who played a big role in helping the Ottawa Senators make the 2013 playoffs in a year when many thought they wouldn't make it. He was in a similar situation this season.

Benoit says it comes down to the team's confidence when nearly every game is a possible elimination game.

“We are a team that’s fairly confident and believes that we can go on a run, and I think that’s important," Benoit said. "Teams that are successful are the ones that play the right way and do the little things right, and I think we have that here.”

Tanguay might forever be loved by Avs fans for his performance in Game 7 of the 2001 Stanley Cup Final when he scored two goals to help Colorado capture its second championship. Unfortunately, Tanguay is likely out for all of this year's playoffs after having hip surgery, but that doesn't mean he won't still be around the team and provide leadership when he can away from the ice.

Colorado also has another player who has done the same thing as Tanguay.

Tanguay is to Avalanche fans as Talbot is to the Pittsburgh Penguins' faithful. Talbot scored twice in Game 7 to help Pittsburgh win the 2009 Stanley Cup, and he seems to elevate his play in the postseason.

While Talbot has a minus-16 rating during his regular-season career, he entered his year's postseason with a plus-17 rating in 77 career games and an average of 0.50 points per contest, which is 0.20 points higher than his season average.

Talbot says he has been trying to show more leadership with this year's Avalanche club as the postseason approached, but he also states that the need to have previous NHL playoff experience isn't necesary.

"It’s about showing my leadership on the ice, which hopefully comes game after game and every day I come to the rink, but it’s fun to talk about it too," said Talbot of the playoffs. "I think it’s important to talk about it and visualize yourself and say that you don’t necessarily need experience to win a championship. Experience comes from doing your own experience."

Stastny agrees with Talbot and thinks the team's youth is a good thing.

"Us having such a young team, sometimes we don't overthink," said Stastny, who is in his eighth NHL season at the age of 28. "We just go out there and play, and I think that’s what gives us an advantage sometimes."

A team's playoff success can often hinge on the play of its goaltender, and the Avalanche had a pretty good one this season. Varlamov had a Vezina Trophy-deserving year as he led the NHL with 41 wins and had a .927 save percentage. He also had strong games during the final weeks of the season as he went 7-0-1 in his last eight contests.

The playoffs are where goalies make a name for themselves, and Varlamov is familiar with the concept from his time with Washington. After playing just six regular-season games as a 20-year-old rookie in 2008-09, Varlamov played in 13 of the Capitals' 14 postseason contests that year before Pittsburgh eliminated them in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Varlamov played in six playoff games the next season, but that was the last time he was on the ice for the postseason until last Thursday's series-opening game against Minnesota.

"I think that right now everyone’s excited; the fans are excited for the playoffs, the boys are excited too," Varlamov said. "It’s a different feeling in the locker room. Right now the guys are really excited to come in the locker room and spend time here. It’s a great feeling.”

Playing good hockey and building momentum heading into the playoffs are also important, and the Avs did just that during the season's homestretch.

Colorado was playing playoff-type hockey and was playing teams that were in the postseason picture fighting for position or on the outside looking to get in. The Avs faced the likes of Anaheim, Boston, Columbus, Nashville, Pittsburgh, San Jose, St. Louis, Vancouver and Winnipeg in the final weeks of the season.

"It’s tough to turn a switch on when the playoffs start," Talbot said. "I think it’s about building momentum throughout the last couple games to build that playoff confidence."

The Avalanche built that momentum and went into the postseason as Central Division champions and the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Colorado finished its season on an 8-1-2 run.

Hockey is a team sport and it takes players pulling for each other to win a championship. This year's Avalanche has strong team chemistry, as players have said throughout the season that they are a close-knit group and like to have fun with each other away from the rink.

Stastny says that chemistry will serve the Avalanche well.

"We have such a young team, and the 'Team' is really the emphasis of what we have here," Stastny said. "We have had other guys pick each other up. I think that’s the special thing we have in this locker room. I think in playoff time you will really see that, whether it is blocking shots or taking a hit to make a play. That's what it is all about."

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