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Infusion of youth has turned back the clock for Avs

by Rick Sadowski
CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- Adam Foote is wise enough not to compare the current crop of Colorado Avalanche players to the ones who arrived in Denver from Quebec 15 years ago, a group that included relatively young rising stars Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg.

Patrick Roy and Claude Lemieux eventually were added to that group, and the Avalanche went on to win the franchise's first Stanley Cup.

"But this team does remind me of when we moved from Quebec," Foote told "I'm not going to say we're at that level now. I'm not going to put us up there. But what's being developed here with the young core … I thought it would take a lot longer. But it's for real, and it's fun to be a part of it."

With 16 regular-season games remaining, the Avalanche remain in contention for the Northwest Division title despite a roster that includes five rookies who play on a regular basis -- center Matt Duchene is a leading Calder Trophy candidate -- and 11 players between the ages of 19 and 25.

The Avalanche's 37-23-6 record going into the weekend is even more remarkable when you consider the team went 32-45-5 last season and landed in the Western Conference cellar.

"I knew we'd be better than what the predictions were, but I didn't know we'd get this much out of the young players," Foote said. "They're playing key minutes and key roles. I didn't know that we'd get the consistency, and that's the surprise to me.

"I knew we'd be better than what the predictions were, but I didn't know we'd get this much out of the young players. They're playing key minutes and key roles. I didn't know that we'd get the consistency, and that's the surprise to me." -- Adam Foote

"We've put ourselves in a nice position, but we don't want to get complacent. We want to make sure that we keep getting better and we have to realize that (the stretch run) is going to be another level of play. It's going to be a grind."

The trick is to stay in the race and, at the very least, secure one of the eight playoff spots in the hotly-contested Western Conference.

"This last stretch is really where teams make it or break it," said goalie Craig Anderson, who signed as a free agent last summer, has started 21-consecutive games and posted a 33-19-5 record with six shutouts, a 2.49 goals-against average and .922 save percentage. "This is where you really have to turn it up. It doesn't matter what you did (earlier). You have to continue to have success to make that final push because there are a lot of teams fighting for spots."

Aside from Anderson, who is having a career season in his first chance as a No. 1 goalie, the Avalanche are leaning on fourth-year center and top scorer Paul Stastny; leading rookie scorer Duchene; fellow rookies Ryan O'Reilly and Ryan Wilson; second-year right wing Chris Stewart; and a defense featuring Foote, Kyle Cumiskey, Scott Hannan, John-Michael Liles and Kyle Quincey.

"We knew we would have a decent team, but I don't think anyone expected we would play like we have so far," Milan Hejduk said. "If you had told me this in training camp, I would say you had to be kidding. Every prediction, almost everybody had us in last place in the conference. Nobody really believed in us, so I think we've surprised a lot of people."

The Avalanche were essentially out of the playoff picture at this stage last season and lost 13 of their final 16 games.

"It was pretty painful," Hejduk said.

Stewart has been on a roll and leads Colorado with 25 goals. Duchene, the third pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, has gotten better as the season has progressed and leads all rookies in scoring with 47 points and 23 goals, including 20 in the past 40 games.

"Any time people are down on you before the start of the season, you want to prove them wrong," Duchene said. "We didn't expect to be bad. I obviously hadn't experienced the NHL before, but skating around in practice and playing with the guys and seeing the skill level on this team, I couldn't imagine we'd be bad. From Day 1 we expected to win. I think if you expect anything less, you'll achieve less."

First-year coach Joe Sacco did expect his young players to make mistakes in the early going, but he continued to give them significant ice time in order for them to gain valuable experience.

O'Reilly, who like Duchene is just 19, has been solid defensively, kills penalties and takes faceoffs in crucial situations. T.J. Galiardi, 21, is among the top rookie scorers with 12 goals and 32 points and has been skating at left wing on the first line with Stastny and Stewart.

"We knew we'd be a young team and that they'd make mistakes early on," Sacco said. "They've gained more confidence in their game and they feel more comfortable on the ice and with their surroundings.

"We've put ourselves in a good position, but we don't want to get tight. We're going to have to play extremely well because it's going to be a dogfight right until the end. If we play good hockey we should be OK, but no one is going to keel over for us.

"It's a great time of the year. We have a chance to win our division. We have a chance to make the playoffs. I hope the guys embrace where we're at right now, don't get too tight -- just enjoy it."
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