The Colorado Avalanche is the surprise of the NHL, and there’s no denying any longer the legitimacy of that statement.
This narrative began back on Opening Night and seemingly adds a new layer at each and every turn, with the latest coming Wednesday night at Pepsi Center in the Avs’ 3-2 win against the Blackhawks that leapfrogged Colorado over Chicago and into second in the Central Division.
An Anaheim loss to Calgary later Wednesday gives the Avalanche a chance Friday night at home to potentially move into second overall in the Western Conference.
Who would have guessed this in May, when Avalanche coach Patrick Roy returned to the franchise that he helped as a player to a pair of Stanley Cup titles? Roy said that his team would play, “With a Stanley Cup attitude,” but many took that to mean a mere change in culture and expectation.
It ignited a flame in the Avalanche fanbase and was a solid first step toward getting the Avs back to the team Roy knew when he donned the Avalanche logo and patrolled creases in downtown Denver.
That's what people thought, but that assumption continues to look more and more off the mark.
The Avalanche finished its season series with Chicago on Wednesday with a 4-1 record against the defending Stanley Cup champions, and with 16 games remaining in the regular season Roy’s bunch holds all control in its quest to secure home-ice advantage for at least one round of this year’s playoffs.
The game felt like a playoff contest—if the standings hold, these teams will meet in the first round—and the intensity maintained for 60 minutes, with Chicago unleashing a flurry of shots in the final minute.
It was just another, “How’d they do that?” in a season overflowing with them.
Paul Stastny wasn’t in the lineup, but the Avalanche overcame. PA Parenteau didn’t skate either, and neither did Alex Tanguay. Both are out for an extended period, with Tanguay done for the season following season-ending hip surgery late last month.
None of it mattered.
Brad Malone scored his second career goal in the first period a day after getting a call-up from the AHL, Matt Duchene extended his career-long point streak to nine games with a goal and an assist, and Ryan O’Reilly scored a third-period power-play goal that proved to be the game winner.
Semyon Varlamov backed the effort with 37 saves en route to winning his 100th career game.
“It certainly means a lot to us," Roy said. "I'm so proud of this group. Losing Tanguay, Stastny and Parenteau, I think our guys showed a lot of character. It's amazing, the depth that we have, but at the same time how resilient our players have been. They play with pride, they play with heart.”
“They gave everything they had again tonight to compete with these guys and beat these guys. … I’m really proud of the leadership that we have on our team. We’re not looking for excuses.”
Duchene’s goal 19 seconds into the second period put Colorado up 2-0, but the Blackhawks owned the period from there, outshooting the Avs 14-8. Patrick Kane provided a highlight-reel score at 8:23 to switch the momentum.
A slugfest ensued, with both teams trading jabs until 10:53 of the third, when O’Reilly took advantage of a 5-on-3 power play with his team-leading 25th goal.
“It’s a great game to get up for,” O’Reilly said. “[Chicago is] a great hockey team, and we just come with a lot of intensity, and tonight we came out on top.”
That’s the nuts and bolts of Wednesday’s win. But how can this incredible run be explained?
How can one explain a small Avalanche rallying cry—“Why not us?”—that started in early October having staying power all the way into the middle of March?
What explanation can be given for a franchise that “earned” the first selection in last summer’s NHL draft but is now vying for the top overall playoff seed in the Western Conference?
How can one explain a 4-1 record against the defending champions, winning the final game of the series without three forwards who were on the Avs’ top three lines when the season began?
There’s something going on here, and it’s amazing to watch unfold. You’ve kind of got to pinch yourself.
“Why not?” Roy asked in his postgame press conference when asked if his team can continue to defy preseason expectations. “We’ve been saying this all year: Why not? The guys have been playing hard, it doesn’t matter who comes in. They just follow and step on the ice and perform … Why not?
“In my years in Montreal when we won we were not necessarily the best team in the NHL, but still we won a lot of series and even the Stanley Cup in . When a group plays like this, with the passion that we’ve been showing and how hard they’re playing and the commitment they’re making … I just remember my last year [with the Avs]. We believed in ourselves, and just played hard every night, and that’s just what we’re trying to do.”
‘AVALANCHE WAY’ HELPS CAREY, MALONE TRANSITION
One of Roy’s first tasks in his return to the Avalanche was to cultivate a consistent organizational approach for use in Denver and in Cleveland, the home of Colorado’s AHL affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters.
|Brad Malone |
|Paul Carey |
The way each team was coached needed to be the same, Roy thought. The way each team treated its players needed to be the same, too, and the way each team played the game needed to be the same.
The Avalanche Way, if you will.
The reason? Roy wanted the ability at the drop of a hat to pluck a player when necessary from the Monsters and plug that player right into his NHL lineup. He didn’t want to have to slow things down for new additions, as that would halt progress and momentum for the rest of the players in the Avs’ dressing room.
That approach was at work Wednesday night, with Paul Carey and Malone on a line with Patrick Bordeleau, playing against Chicago just a day after receiving a call-up from the Monsters
Stastny and Parenteau weren’t available for, but Roy’s vision and work last summer alleviated those absences.
Malone put the Avs ahead 1-0 with 1:36 left in the first period after he bounced the puck to himself off the boards in the neutral zone, skated down the left wing and took a shot from the bottom of the faceoff circle that handcuffed Chicago netminder Antti Raanta.
His second career goal and first this season couldn’t have come at a much better time.
“Malone playing his first game in awhile and Carey’s first-ever game, they played outstanding,” Duchene said. “[They] got us on the board early, and we went from there.”
“They didn’t play big minutes, but the minutes they played they did a really good job,” Roy said. “The goal that Malone scored was a really big one for us. It gave us a 1-0 lead.
After Malone slapped the puck past Raanta and the Avalanche fans exploded in sound, Carey, who finished with a shot, hit and plus-one rating in 5:59, skated down the right side and celebrated with his new NHL teammate after both were with the Monsters earlier this week.
“Both of us were pretty excited about it,” Malone said. “It was a quick smile. In Cleveland it’s a little different, so it was pretty special.”
Malone was recalled Monday for his second stint with the Avalanche this season, and he’s also appeared in NHL games with Colorado during the 2011-12 season and last year, so the learning curve wasn’t as steep for him, as it was for Carey.
Both players arrived in Denver late Tuesday morning and were on the ice for an optional skate session at Family Sports in Centennial. Later, Malone got reacquainted with former teammates, while Carey just tried to discern which way was up after a memorable but whirlwind night hours.
“It’s been a crazy 12 hours,” said Carey on Tuesday afternoon. “I missed [the call], so my roommate had to call me and say, ‘Hey, pick up your phone.’ Finding out I was coming up was something special. I had to wake my parents up and tell them, and I just packed everything up and [flew] out here.”
Malone had two assists in his first stay with the Avs this season, which spanned from Nov. 18 to Jan. 22 and included being a healthy scratch 15 times. Carey, 25 and the Avalanche’s fifth-round selection (135th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, has 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in 54 games this season with Lake Erie.
He spent all of last year with Lake Erie (41 points – 19 goals, 22 assists) after helping Boston College to back-to-back NCAA titles in 2010 and 2012.
“I’m definitely here to play as hard as I can and show the guys that I belong at this level,” Carey said. “It’s definitely exciting with these games coming up. I looked at the schedule and just to play some of these teams will be pretty awesome.”