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Improved Avalanche expect better second half

by Rick Sadowski
The 2011-12 season reaches its mid-point upon the completion of Monday night's game between the Washington Capitals and the Los Angeles Kings. But is going to take all week to look at the significant stories as the League makes the turn and heads toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs. We'll look at the races for the League's individual awards, while profiling some of the most surprising players and teams as we look ahead to the final three months of the season.

DENVER -- The possibility of earning a playoff berth seemed remote for the Colorado Avalanche in early December, after the team managed just seven wins in a 22-game stretch to slip three games under .500 and plummet to near the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

Losing all three games of a trip through western Canada while getting outscored 13-3 to close out that period merely added to the concern.

"When things are not going well, it's hard to stay positive," Avalanche captain Milan Hejduk told "You try, but it's hard."

The Avalanche's collective psyche has improved considerably since then, and with good reason. Colorado reached the halfway point of the season on an 8-1 roll to climb back into the playoff picture with a 22-18-1 record and 45 points.

"The second half of the season is going to be a battle. There are number of teams that are battling with us, and it's going to be fun. For a while we were a little down. Definitely now it's a way better feeling. We have fun during practices and we are laughing a lot in the locker room. It's definitely more fun."
-- Avalanche captain Milan Hejduk

"We've had a good stretch and we're back in the playoff picture, back in the hunt," Hejduk said. "The second half of the season is going to be a battle. There are number of teams that are battling with us, and it's going to be fun. For a while we were a little down. Definitely now it's a way better feeling. We have fun during practices and we are laughing a lot in the locker room. It's definitely more fun."

Defenseman Shane O'Brien called that disastrous trip to Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton a "wake-up call" that prompted coach Joe Sacco to put the team through a grueling bag skate when it arrived home.

"The coaching staff obviously sent a message, and everyone in the room just kind of looked at themselves in the mirror and realized it wasn't good enough," O'Brien said. "We started playing better. We had some bounces go our way, and you need that in the course of a season. If you work hard, you make your own bounces. Everyone's picked their game up. We're playing as a team. We're hard to play against, we're putting pucks on net and we're going to the dirty areas. That's how you get rewarded."

The Avalanche were also in the hunt for a playoff spot at this time a year ago, with a 21-15-5 record and 47 points. The difference is that team was struggling leading up to the halfway point with two wins in eight games, was hit with a rash of injuries and won just nine times in the final 41 games to finish 29th in the overall standings.

The most significant changes this season: improved goaltending, team defense and penalty killing, areas that were woefully weak a season ago.

Goalies Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere have been superb during the Avalanche's resurgence, making timely saves to help the team post a 15-5-1 record in one-goal games and a 7-0 mark in shootouts. Varlamov, acquired from Washington on July 1 in exchange for first- and second-round draft picks, has permitted a total of five goals in a personal four-game winning streak. Giguere, signed to a two-year, $2.5 million contract as a free agent, has won five of his past six decisions and owns a 1.96 goals-against average, fifth best in the NHL.


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"It's amazing to have one goalie playing well, but when you have two it just helps so much," left wing TJ Galiardi said. "We have so much confidence with those guys back there."

The Avalanche reached the halfway point having killed 34 of 37 penalties in a 10-game stretch, and bigger has proven to be better on defense with the additions of free-agent pickups Jan Hejda (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) and O'Brien (6-3, 230). Erik Johnson (6-4, 232), acquired last February from St. Louis, has been playing much better of late, and smooth-skating rookie Stefan Elliott has turned into a dangerous offensive weapon.

"I like the way we're defending," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "We're certainly defending much better overall. Our play without the puck is much better, our defensive zone coverage is much better and our goaltending's been solid, and that's what you need in this League. You need some structure, you need timely scoring and you need good goaltending, and we've gotten that lately."

The Avalanche will need to keep playing tight defense and bank on Varlamov and Giguere to continue their strong play because they have scored more than three goals only 12 times and expect to be without star forward Matt Duchene until early February after he suffered a knee injury in a Dec. 29 game against Phoenix. Left wing Peter Mueller has been recovering from the effects of a concussion and hasn't played since the third game of the season.

Third-year center Ryan O'Reilly, 20, has developed into a top-flight two-way player who leads the team in scoring, and rookie Gabriel Landeskog, 19, is a rugged left wing who has exceeded all expectations after being selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft.

The Avalanche do need to get more production from center Paul Stastny, who had 11 goals and 10 assists at the halfway point, and right wing David Jones, who had 7 goals and 7 assists after scoring a career-high 27 goals last season.

"There's still a lot of work ahead of us," Sacco said. "I really like the way we have played over the last dozen or so games. What's most important is that we're back in the (playoff) picture. We're right in the thick of things. It's an extremely difficult and very tough conference that we're in, but I know that our guys feel good about themselves. Our players sure feel better about themselves about the position we're in right now.

"Winning is going to create confidence, there's no question, but I think our players understand how we have to play to be successful. They're starting to figure that out."
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