The Avalanche skated around the Pepsi Center ice on the morning of Dec. 31, 2013 preparing for a New Year’s Eve game with Columbus and with a rather sizable Central Division deficit staring it directly in the face.
The Blackhawks were at the top of the pile that morning after defeating Los Angeles the night before. Chicago, the defending Stanley Cup champions, ended the 2013 calendar year at 28-7-7, with 63 points already pocketed and with a comfortable divisional lead.
It was ahead of St. Louis, which was second in the Central after earning a victory two nights earlier against Dallas to push its record to 26-7-5 (57 points).
A quick glance at the NHL standings that New Year’s Eve morning revealed the following:
2013-14 NHL CENTRAL DIVISION - TOP THREE (as of Dec. 31, 2013)
1. Chicago – 28-7-7 (63 points)
2. St. Louis – 26-7-5 (57)
3. Colorado – 23-11-4 (50)
That may not seem like much ground to make up—especially considering how well the Avs have played lately—but Colorado was trending downward at the time (four straight losses) after starting its season at a historic pace, winning 12 of its first 13 games.
Nobody in the Avalanche dressing room was panicking or adding additional pressure to that night’s game, but there was a great sense that if a return to early-season form was going to happen in Patrick Roy’s first year as the Avs head coach it was going to need to happen ASAP, and it was going to need to be dramatic.
“It’s an important moment in our season,” Roy admitted that morning.
And with hindsight as a guide, it’s interesting to consider that it might have been the moment in the season where everything changed for these Avs. Their identity morphed beginning that day, from “Last year’s team with Roy as a Coach,” to, “Patrick Roy’s team.”
Whatever happened between that morning skate and now can be left to conjecture and debate, but there’s no denying that the Avalanche has been the best team in the National Hockey League in 2014.
No other team has been as good since Dec. 31.
The Avs knocked off Columbus 5-3 to end 2013 and have added 17 more wins in the weeks that followed. Those 18 victories overall (18-6-1) and subsequent points earned (37) are the most in the NHL since champagne was toasted and New Year's Eve first kisses were had. That run has propelled the Avalanche right into the middle of what figures to be a crazy finishing Central Division kick.
Here’s what the division's top tier looks like now, on the eve of the Avs facing the Blues on Saturday at Pepsi Center:
2013-14 NHL CENTRAL DIVISION TOP THREE (as of March 7, 2014)
1. St. Louis – 42-14-6 (90 pts.)
2. Chicago – 37-13-4 (88)
3. Colorado – 41-17-5 (87)
The Avalanche won games Nos. 40 and 41 of this season this week in emotional contests against Chicago (4-2) and old-rival Detroit (3-2, OT) and now has a chance in the next five days to make this race even closer.
Saturday's game against St. Louis is first on the agenda, and Wednesday’s season series finale against the Blackhawks waits in the wings.
“Who would have thought the Avalanche would have been in that position?” Roy asked with a rhetorical twinge Friday afternoon at Family Sports Center. “It’s a great situation to be in. When we started the season we had as an objective to surprise the world of hockey, and that’s one of the first things I remember saying. We wanted also to remain even keel all season long and take it one day at a time. We haven’t changed. We’re going to continue to go in that direction. Tomorrow it’s the St. Louis Blues who are in Denver at [1 p.m. MT]. We’re not looking more than that.
“It is a great test for us. It’s a great situation to be in. By winning this game we have a chance to be even closer to them. Our guys are very excited.”
It’s not going to be easy, though. But rarely are these kinds of things.
St. Louis and Colorado have already played two times this season—both in November, both before Colorado’s New Year’s Eve turnaround—and neither game was particularly close.
The Blues played just about a perfect game against Colorado on Nov. 14 in St. Louis and sent the Avs packing with a 7-3 drubbing—a “stinker,” characterized by Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog. A couple weeks later the Blues led 3-1 at the end of the first period in Denver and cruised to a 4-1 win at Pepsi Center.
That second loss dropped Colorado to a 14-4-0—an unexpected and stellar early-season record—but because of its lack of success in back-to-back games against a divisional opponent, a lingering cloud of questions hung over the season.
Searching for answers after the second game, Avalanche center Matt Duchene almost whispered to reporters that he thought the Blues in the two games displayed a psychological advantage over the Avs as much as a physical one.
“I think they’re in our heads a little bit,” he said in the middle of an exhale as he shoved sweaty, matted hair away from his forehead.
Now, with 101 days having passed since St. Louis and Colorado last played, the trajectory of each team has fallen much more in a parallel direction, rather than perpendicular.
The Blues have continued on, of course, and passed over the Cup-champion Blackhawks as the top team in the Central. Holding a 15-point lead over top Wild Card contender Minnesota with 20 games to play, St. Louis is a near lock for the postseason.
But so are the Avs, who are 12 points up on the Wild and maintain they’re a far different group from the team that fell short two times in November against St. Louis.
A regulation win Saturday afternoon at Pepsi Center would remarkably pull the Avs to within a point of St. Louis and slide Chicago into third.
“In my opinion we’re a different team than the last two times we played [St. Louis,]” Roy said. “We’re playing better defensively; we made some adjustments in our systems. I think it’s good timing for us to see where we are against these guys.”
“We played them early in the year, and I think we were a pretty different team,” said Nathan MacKinnon, who is in the midst of a 13-game point streak, which is an NHL record for an 18-year-old player and just one shy of the longest streak by any player in the league this season (Patrick Kane, Ryan Getzlaf).
“Both times we played them it wasn’t our best game, but we’re playing well right now, and I think we’ll have a good effort.”
Added Landeskog: “I think we match up well against them. I know they played well against us this year, and we’ve lost the two previous games, but at the same time we’re a different team, and we’ve learned a lot of things over the last couple months, and I think we’re growing as a group.”
Considering the Blues won 2-1 against Minnesota on that New Year’s Eve night and have won 15 of 24 since, the Avs have made up considerable ground on a team that hasn’t really done anything wrong. The Avalanche has just been better, authoring a remarkable run while getting contributions from face-of-the-franchise players and role-playing, “glue guys” alike.
Colorado has had 21 players score a goal this season, and it’s one of just two teams in the NHL (Chicago) to feature four players with at least 50 points.
“This is who we are,” Roy said Friday. “We need everybody to step in and help this team to be as successful as we are right now. Our players deserve a lot of credit for that, and that’s what makes me extremely proud of them. Every night they’re playing as a team; they’re happy when someone scores a goal.
“It just shows you what kind of people we have in that dressing room—quality people; quality leaders. We’re happy to be where we are … but not satisfied.”
Roy interjected that final statement as a reporter began to ask a follow-up: “But not satisfied … I want to make sure I say that.”
Maybe Roy and his players aren’t satisfied yet, but one would think they’ll be so much closer to that with a win Saturday against St. Louis.