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Mueller fits right in with young Avalanche

by Rick Sadowski
CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- Milan Hejduk looks across the dressing room inside the Colorado Avalanche practice facility, shakes his head and says with a laugh: "I still can't believe how young those guys are."

Hejduk is talking about center Matt Duchene, 19, and newly acquired left wing Peter Mueller, 21.

At 34 and in his 11th season with the Avalanche, Hejduk is a mere six years younger than the combined ages of his linemates.

"It's kind of weird when I think about it," Hejduk told "But everybody gets old at some point and the guys coming into the League are getting younger and younger. Those guys are really playing well and they're only going to get better."

Duchene leads all NHL rookies in scoring and is a serious Calder Trophy candidate. Mueller has been on fire since the Avalanche acquired him from the Phoenix Coyotes at the trade deadline, with 7 goals and 10 assists in a dozen games.

Plenty of folks around the League were shaking their heads when the Avalanche sent one of their top scorers, Wojtek Wolski, to the Coyotes in exchange for a struggling Mueller and prospect Kevin Porter, but the deal is working well for both teams.

Wolski, whose inconsistency baffled Avalanche management, has been solid for the Coyotes and helped them secure their first Western Conference playoff berth since 2002.

Mueller, with a new lease on life, has found a home in Colorado. A natural center, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound native of Bloomington, Minn., is skating at left wing on a line with Duchene and Hejduk, and playing the point on the first power-play unit.

Porter, who won the Hobey Baker Award in 2008 while at the University of Michigan, has collected a point in three-consecutive games while skating on the left side with first-liners Paul Stastny and Chris Stewart.

Mueller enjoyed a successful rookie season in 2007-08 with the Coyotes, who made him a first-round pick (No. 8) in the 2006 Entry Draft. He had 22 goals and 32 assists in 81 games and appeared to be a rising star. But his production dropped last season to 13 goals and 23 assists in 72 games, and his play bottomed out this season, with 4 goals, 13 assists and a minus-5 rating in 54 games.

"He had a pretty good rookie year and this year, for some reason, I guess he was struggling," Hejduk said. "The change has been really good for him. He's a young, talented player with a big shot."

Mueller was unhappy in Arizona and requested a trade, though he had nothing but good things to say about Coyotes coach Dave Tippett.

"He's done a great job," Mueller said. "You look at their record and his overall record as an NHL coach, it's unbelievable. He's turned that organization into a winning team. It's good to see hockey in the desert is coming alive.

"(But) I needed a change. It wasn't working out. Colorado believed in me and brought me in and it's nice to get a chance out there. It's nice to get out there in key situations. The more time you get out there and the more touches you get with the puck, the more confidence you get. It makes you feel you're in the game. It's been great so far. I want my teammates to believe in me, that I can produce."

Mueller's teammates have become believers, as has coach Joe Sacco. Mueller is averaging about 18 minutes of ice time per game with the Avalanche, nearly six minutes more than he received with the Coyotes.

"When a player loses his confidence, it's tough to play, especially at a high level," Sacco said. "Peter, for whatever reason, wasn't being put in the situations that he's being put in now. The main thing he's doing is taking advantage of those opportunities.

"I like his game. I think he's been responsible away from the puck and I think he's playing hard and doing all the things that we're asking him to do -- not just offensively, but playing away from the puck. Certainly when you play with confidence it's a lot easier to play this game."

Mueller also has given a much-needed jolt to the Avalanche power play. Eight of his 17 points have come on power plays, with 3 goals and 5 assists. He had 1 goal and 1 assist on the power play with Phoenix.

"I needed a change. It wasn't working out. Colorado believed in me and brought me in and it's nice to get a chance out there. It's nice to get out there in key situations." -- Peter Mueller

"He’s been a huge plus on our power play," Sacco said. "To have a right-handed shot that we can put on a one-timer's side, it opens up a lot for our power play. When teams try to take away that shot, it opens up other areas that we can focus on."

The Mueller-Duchene-Hejduk line has combined for 17 goals and 20 assists since the trade, even though Mueller missed one game because of a sore hip and Hejduk was scratched twice with back spasms.

"I'm playing with two outstanding players," Mueller said. "Milan Hejduk is such an unbelievable scorer and player, and Matt Duchene has put up some serious numbers. I'm trying to complement them and help make them better, too."

Said Sacco: "They had some good chemistry right away, right off the hop. They complement each other pretty well. You've got three guys that can put the puck in the net and three guys that can make plays. That's going to be an important line for us."

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