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Current Avalanche look like 2009-10 playoff team

by Rick Sadowski

DENVER -- The similarities might not be Twilight Zone material, but they are eerie.

The 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche have been a mirror image of their 2009-10 predecessors, the most recent Avalanche team to earn a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Let us count the ways:

The current team has gotten off to a 12-2-0 start under a first-year coach, Patrick Roy, behind the rock-solid goaltending of Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere and with teenage forward Nathan MacKinnon, 18, playing an important role.

The 2009-10 Avalanche began their season 10-2-2 under a first-year coach, Joe Sacco, behind goalies Craig Anderson and Peter Budaj and with teenage forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly, both 18, playing prominent roles.

The current Colorado Avalanche team bears a striking similarity to the 2009-10 squad that was the most recent for the franchise to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Photo: Michael Martin/NHLI)

The current team has gone 6-2-0 at home, 6-0-0 on the road and has outscored opponents 46-25.

The 2009-10 Avalanche were 4-0-0 home and 6-2-2 on the road through 14 games while outscoring opponents 45-31.

"We had so many young guys that year," said center Paul Stastny, who led the 2009-10 team in scoring with 79 points (20 goals, 59 assists). "We almost weren't even thinking. We were just going out and playing. There were no expectations on anyone."

That's been a familiar refrain under Roy, who is attempting to change the culture for a franchise that has missed the playoffs the past three seasons and in 2012-13 finished last in the Western Conference with a 16-25-7 record.

Duchene, now 22 and in his fifth season in Colorado, is one of five players who remain from the previous playoff team. The others: O'Reilly, Stastny, left wing Cody McLeod and defenseman Ryan Wilson, who is expected to be sidelined for two weeks with a back injury.

"When you've tasted losing it breeds more losing," said Duchene, who is among the NHL's scoring leaders with 17 points in 14 games. "When you taste winning you get that hunger for it. I've never wanted to win games more than right now in my entire career. It's heartbreaking when we lose right now.

"I think we all believe in here that we're going to be in the playoffs, but that comes from taking care of each and every day and treating each and every day one by one. That's what's special right now. Each win we're accumulating, we know it's going toward something big at the end of the day."

The Avalanche stumbled down the stretch four seasons ago but had played so well in the early going that they still managed to earn the No. 8 seed in the West and finish second in the Northwest Division with a 43-30-9 record and 95 points. They lost a first-round series to the San Jose Sharks in six games.

Matt Duchene
Center - COL
GOALS: 10 | ASST: 7 | PTS: 17
SOG: 50 | +/-: 6
A significant difference between the teams is attitude. Stastny said the Avalanche took a playoff spot for granted then following their impressive start. That isn't the case now. Roy has been preaching humility since the season began and players have taken that approach to heart.

"Now we're a little more humble," Stastny said. "I think we're more even-keeled, just taking it game by game. We know how hard it is to make the playoffs, how long of a season it is. We know it's only been 14 games. You have to be consistent and to keep getting better.

"We've been through three seasons that have been straight downhill. I think we're so sick of that. We've learned how to lose and now we're trying to learn how to win and to keep that attitude because that's what winning teams do."

O'Reilly played more of a defensive role as a rookie center when he had eight goals and 18 assists. He posted 18 goals and 37 assists two seasons ago and has five goals and four assists in 14 games this season while playing left wing on the top line with Duchene and PA Parenteau.

"This team, we have more guys that can put the puck in the net," he said. "We're more dangerous offensively. Our forwards have more firepower."

The Avalanche's top forwards are Duchene, Parenteau, O'Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog, Paul Stastny, Alex Tanguay (currently out with a knee injury), MacKinnon and Jamie McGinn.

The top forwards in 2009-10 were Stastny, Duchene, Chris Stewart, Wojtek Wolski (later traded for Peter Mueller), Milan Hejduk and TJ Galiardi.

"This team has more depth," Stastny said. "We probably had two [scoring] lines on that team. Now if we have an injury we have enough depth to fill that out. This team has more skill."

The Avalanche don't have a marquee defenseman, though Erik Johnson was chosen by the St. Louis Blues with the No. 1 pick of the 2006 NHL Draft; they rely more on a five-man scheme to protect Varlamov and Giguere. None of the top-six defensemen were Avalanche draft picks. Johnson, Wilson and Cory Sarich were acquired in trades; Andre Benoit, Nate Guenin and Jan Hejda were signed as free agents.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere
Goalie - COL
RECORD: 4-0-0
GAA: 0.75 | SVP: 0.977
Defenseman Adam Foote, a member of the Avalanche's two Stanley Cup championship teams, began the first season of his two-year stint as team captain in 2009-10 after Joe Sakic retired. He was joined on defense by Wilson, John-Michael Liles, Scott Hannan, Kyle Cumiskey and Brett Clark.

"Defensively as a system, we're a lot better than we were then," Stastny said. "Sometimes we'd get lost, but now when we play defensively and we backcheck, we do it as a five-man unit. We're not relying on one or two guys."

Despite the Avalanche's youth -- six players on this season's roster are 25 or younger while five are in their 30s -- Duchene said this team is more experienced than it was four seasons ago.

"Even with our young guys -- myself, O'Reilly and Landeskog -- we're all young guys but we've been around the block a little bit now," he said. "It's not like that first year where me and O'Reilly had zero games of experience. It's just very different. [MacKinnon] is really our only inexperienced guy and he was a first overall pick, so that's impressive as well."

Stastny said Roy's hands-on instruction during practices and his demeanor after games have been a welcome change.

"Teaching-wise I think Patty's a lot different," he said. "Whether it's tough at times or it's easy, it's nice to have that voice whether you're doing something right or when you're doing it wrong -- not just when you're doing it wrong. You get that positive reinforcement. You also have constructive criticism and that helps a lot when you have a young team."

The Avalanche's play has been one of the surprise stories of the season, but Duchene is convinced it isn't a fluke.

"We deserve right now to be where we're at and if we continue to play the way we are we're going to be near the top of the League," he said. "Nothing's going to change. We're doing the right things that are making us successful. The biggest thing right now is we're not accepting to stay the same. We want to keep getting better.

"There are a lot of teams with some really good records right now. Every year there's teams like that and one or two of them fall off and one team usually doesn't. We want to be that team."

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