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Avalanche's success coming from unlikely sources

by Tal Pinchevsky /

One month.

That's how long it took the Colorado Avalanche to win six games last season. One month -- 14 games -- into the 2012-13 season, they got their sixth win. Two nights later, Colorado beat the St. Louis Blues 1-0 in overtime to even their record at 7-7-1. They wouldn't reach the .500 mark again and finished with the NHL's second-worst record (16-25-7). They won the NHL Draft Lottery and used the first pick of the 2013 NHL Draft to select center Nathan MacKinnon.

The 2013-14 edition of the Avalanche has a new coach and a few roster additions. But what is essentially the same core group of players has turned into a very different team.

This season it took less than two weeks for the Avalanche (6-0-0) to get six wins and put together the franchise's longest win streak in almost three years. If they beat the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday, Patrick Roy will set a new record for consecutive wins to start an NHL coaching career.

So how did this happen?

Everything you need to know about the 2013-14 Avalanche can be distilled down to one number: 10:52.

That is roughly the time it takes to cook a frozen pizza in a conventional oven. It's also the total amount of time Colorado has trailed in its six games. So the team has only been behind in about three percent of the time it has played this season. The team's excellent 5-on-5 play largely is responsible for that, but this impressive statistic is primarily due to what has become a team signature: Colorado's quick starts.

In its 6-0-0 start, Colorado has scored seven goals in the first period and allowed only one; no other team comes close to that ratio. And the Avalanche have managed to score at the most opportune time in the opening period. In three of their wins, they've taken a lead by scoring in the final 70 seconds of the first.

All their success has come despite the fact that they're giving up five more shots per game than they're taking. In fact, only two teams have allowed more shots per game than Colorado (35.3), and those teams (Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres) have a combined record of 3-8-3.

Fortunately, goaltender Semyon Varlamov has been a revelation in net.

No one could have predicted the 25-year-old Russian would open the season by posting a League-best .965 save percentage and a 1.20 goals-against average that ranks second. Not to be outdone, 36-year-old backup Jean-Sebastien Giguere enjoyed a 39-save shutout in his lone appearance this season, a 2-0 victory against the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins on Oct. 10.

While Varlamov has emerged in the Avalanche net, center Matt Duchene has established himself as a potential franchise center. Through two weeks, the third pick in the 2009 draft has used his speed to set the tone for the team's offense and transition game. But it's not just Duchene's scoring that has made him so important. His 56.6-percent success rate in the faceoff circle ranks among the top 20 in the League. Right behind him is teammate Paul Stastny at 56.2 percent. As a team Colorado is worse on the draw this season compared to 2012-13, mostly due to MacKinnon's struggles in the circle. But that improved faceoff performance from the top two centers has helped facilitate the team's puck-possession game.

Duchene was key Tuesday against the Dallas Stars, scoring two goals, including the game-winner. But when the game was on the line late, Roy turned to one of the League's unlikeliest shut-down defensive pairing.

After a nomadic career that saw him play mostly in the American Hockey League and Europe, 29-year-old Andre Benoit entered this season having never played more than 22 minutes in any of his 47 career NHL games. In six games this season, he's already reached that mark four times. With the Stars pressing for the tying goal late Tuesday, it was Benoit and Cory Sarich who Roy sent out for the final defensive-zone faceoff. The two veterans were acquired this summer and earned the same responsibility Oct. 10, getting crucial ice time late in regulation with the Avs leading 1-0 but the Bruins' net empty for an extra attacker.

The 35-year-old Sarich leads the team with a plus-8 rating and even scored the tying goal in Colorado's 2-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 8; it was his first goal since Jan. 10, 2012. After being a liability last season, Colorado's blue line suddenly has a consistent veteran presence, no doubt aided by the addition of assistant coach Adam Foote, another former player from the franchise's glory days.

But the most remarkable turnaround with this undefeated Avalanche team isn't their franchise goaltender or their shut-down defense pairing.

Prior to this season the Avalanche penalty kill had finished in the bottom-third of the League six times in seven seasons, including a 30th-place finish in 2010-11 when it had an anemic 76.1-percent success rate. This season Colorado's penalty kill ranks first at an incredible 93.8 percent (one goal allowed on 16 chances).

Jan Hejda has been a stalwart killing penalties. But his partner on the penalty kill, 30-year-old Nate Guenin, wasn't even expected to make the team when Colorado signed him in July. Instead, he's become a reliable resource when a man down, as have forwards Cody McLeod, Jamie McGinn and John Mitchell. Mitchell in particular has been reborn in Colorado since spending 2010-12 bouncing between the Maple Leafs, the New York Rangers and the American Hockey League before signing with the Avs prior to the start of last season.

Yet another unlikely contributor to one of the true feel-good stories so far this season.

Oh, and how is the MacKinnon kid doing? He leads the team with six assists.

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