"Our young guys have played really well for us in key situations, and we're going to need them to continue to do that. We don't consider them young anymore; they've played half the season, and they know what to expect. Our team has to age a little bit quicker than most teams, because we're right in a good battle here for our division."
-- Colorado forward Darcy Tucker
Back in September, the conventional wisdom suggested that the rebuilding Colorado Avalanche
were in for a tough season.
After losing franchise cornerstone Joe Sakic
due to retirement, shipping Ryan Smyth
to Los Angeles in a trade, and saying good-bye to free agent Ian Laperriere
, the team appeared to be losing a good measure of its heartbeat.
Plus, the Avs were taking a risk on their big free-agent signing of the summer, goaltender Craig Anderson
, who'd never been a bona fide No. 1. They were taking an even bigger risk on a couple of raw 18-year-old rookies, in Matt Duchene
and Ryan O'Reilly
And, their new head coach, Joe Sacco, was only there because Patrick Roy
turned the job down flat.
So conventional wisdom said the Avs, who'd just gone through the worst season since the team arrived in Denver, would sink like a stone to the bottom of the Western Conference in 2009-10.
Well . . . so much for conventional wisdom.
"I guess," Anderson said Monday with tongue in cheek, "the experts were wrong."
And then some.
With more than half of the NHL's 2009-10 regular season in the books, Colorado (26-15-6) is no longer considered an early-season surprise, or a flash in the pan. After Monday's 3-2 shootout win in Calgary, the Avs remain tied for the Northwest Division lead, which they've held for the better part of three months.
Sacco has to rate serious consideration for the Jack Adams
Award as the NHL's top coach. And these Avs appear to be in it for the long haul.
"I certainly believe that we're a good team, and that we're for real," Sacco said. "At the start of the season, we had something to prove to teams. It was more of an attitude where we wanted to prove people wrong, that we were going to be a competitive team, and we had something to prove.
"Now that we've done that, it's a matter of being consistent throughout the whole season, and doing it, and for the most part we've been a pretty consistent team. I think, for a young group, we've responded after games where we haven't played well.
"We have to credit our leadership group in the room; they've done a good job with our young players. We feel that we're for real, and that we are going to be fighting right up to the very end."
Anderson, the former backup with the Chicago Blackhawks
and Florida Panthers
, has been rock-solid for the Avs. While he's fallen off the statistical leaderboard, where he'd set up shop through October and November, Anderson has been bedrock between the pipes in Denver.
He says expectations are a curious thing.
"When there are no expectations, you can only go up. You can only exceed the expectations when there aren't any," Anderson told Calgary's FAN 960 Radio on Monday. "For us, it's just a matter of coming to the rink and worrying about playing hockey, not worrying about outside factors, what people might say.
"And we care about each other in here. That's the main thing. Everyone cares about everyone else. And they want to see everybody do well and have success. We all know we can't do that on our own."
A leadership nucleus of Adam Foote
, Darcy Tucker
and Milan Hejduk
has filled the void left by Sakic, Smyth and Laperriere. Team USA Olympian Paul Stastny
(10-33—43), Wojtek Wolski
(15-24—39), Hejduk (15-15—30) and Chris Stewart
(14-15—29) have given Anderson the goal support he needs.
Meanwhile, the young duo of Duchene and O'Reilly has met even the wildest expectations of Avs brass. Duchene is tied with the New York Islanders
' John Tavares
for the NHL rookie points lead, with 29, while O'Reilly is eighth with 18.
Fellow freshman T.J. Galiardi
sits 10th, with 16 points, while defenseman Ryan Wilson
shares the league lead in rookie plus-minus rating (plus-9).
"Our young guys have played really well for us in key situations, and we're going to need them to continue to do that," Tucker said. "We don't consider them young anymore; they've played half the season, and they know what to expect.
"Our team has to age a little bit quicker than most teams, because we're right in a good battle here for our division."
Sacco's Avs have also managed to avoid any kind of protracted slump that goes before a pratfall. They've lost three in a row just twice this season -- from Nov. 8 to 14, and Nov. 25 to 28 -- and picked up points in three of those six defeats.
"The biggest one is the three-game losing streak. People say it all the time -- if you can avoid three-game losing streaks, it's obvious that you increase your chance to have a successful season," said Sacco.
"We've been consistent this year. We've responded well after a bad game, where we know we need to come back and play strong the next night."