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Avalanche ride fast start, young core back to playoffs

by Jon Lane

A season ago the Colorado Avalanche finished last in the Western Conference and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third straight season. Coach Joe Sacco was fired.

Two franchise legends were tasked with rebuilding the franchise. In May, Joe Sakic was named executive vice president of hockey operations. Two weeks later, Patrick Roy was hired as coach. Each was a cornerstone of Colorado's Stanley Cup victories in 1996 and 2001, which made for a winning pedigree in the front office and behind the bench.

The Avalanche opened the Roy Era with a 6-1 win against the Anaheim Ducks and raced out of the gate like a thoroughbred. Considering how they finished last season, many braced for the Avalanche to fall back to the pack. Instead, they're headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

It's been a long road back for the Avalanche, but the wait has been worth it. Colorado's 47 wins are the most since 2000-01 (52) and its 100 points are the most since the Avalanche hit that number in 2003-04.

Here are five reasons the Avalanche will be in the first postseason for the first time in four years:

1. Fast start

Colorado's 6-0-0 start tied Roy with Mario Tremblay for the NHL record for victories at the start of a coaching career. A 4-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 2 gave the Avalanche their second six-game winning streak, improved their record to 12-1-0 and matched the 1994-95 Quebec Nordiques for the best start in franchise history.

Despite hitting the occasional speed bump, the Avalanche proved they're for real. At 47-21-6, they have a legitimate chance of passing the Chicago Blackhawks for second place in the Central Division, which would give them home-ice advantage in a first-round matchup against the defending Stanley Cup champions.

2. Big Mac

Nathan MacKinnon made his NHL debut Oct. 2 as the youngest player in franchise history (18 years, 31 days). He had two assists to make him the youngest player in League history to have two or more points in a game since Ted Kennedy of the Toronto Maple Leafs did it against the Boston Bruins on Jan. 8, 1944.

There's been no slowing MacKinnon, whose 23 goals, 33 assists and 56 points lead all NHL rookies. His 13-game point streak from Jan. 25 to March 6 broke Wayne Gretzky's record of 12 for the longest by an 18-year-old in League history; it was the second-longest by a first-year player since 1993-94, topped only by Paul Stastny's 20 in 2006-07.

Instead of hitting the rookie wall, MacKinnon's game continues to peak entering the most important time of the season.

3. Maturation of young players

MacKinnon (No. 1, 2013), Matt Duchene (No. 3, 2009) and Gabriel Landeskog (No. 2, 2011) are living up to their draft expectations to form a rapidly maturing young core in Colorado. Duchene's 70 points are a career high and the most by an Avalanche player since Stastny had 79 in 2009-10. Landeskog, the youngest captain in NHL history (19 years, 286 days at the time he was named), has established career-bests in goals (24), assists (37) and points (61) while leading the team in plus/minus (plus-21).

Ryan O'Reilly (career-high 26 goals), Landeskog, MacKinnon, Duchene (23 goals) and Stastny (21 goals) give the Avalanche five 20-goal scorers, the most in the NHL. Each also has at least 50 points, which ties the Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins for the League high.

4. Settled in goal

Goaltender Semyon Varlamov signed a five-year contract extension through 2018-19 on Jan. 30 and has rewarded the Avalanche with career-highs of 37 wins (the most in the League), 58 games and 55 starts. The Avalanche allow 32.8 shots per game, more than all but five other teams. Varlamov is second in the League in shots faced (1,853) and first in saves (1,715). His 24 wins since Dec. 12 lead all goaltenders and his 24 since Dec. 31 are two better than the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist for the League high.

Varlamov also set a franchise record in wins in the month of January (10-1-1) and went 11-0-5 in 16 starts from Dec. 12 to Jan. 18 to equal the longest streak without a regulation loss in club history.

"We would not be where we are without him," Roy said.

5. Roy's remarkable season

What Roy has done in his first season is help spearhead the rapid turnaround in Colorado and establish himself as a bona fide Jack Adams Award candidate. He became the first coach in NHL history to win 14 of his first 16 games and one of two, along with Marc Crawford, to win 12 of his first 13 games.

Just as important as Roy's skill behind the bench is what Landeskog refers to as a "partnership" with his players.

"It's not coach vs. players," Landeskog told's Dan Rosen. "We're all in this together and he made that really clear from the beginning. I think other than that he's a very good teacher and knows how to get messages through to his players and knows how to interact with his players. He's certainly earned the trust and respect that any coach needs for his players to work hard for him."

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