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Rebuilt Avalanche are building momentum early

by Rick Sadowski
CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- With seven new faces on a Colorado Avalanche team that finished with the second-worst record in the NHL last season, few folks could have anticipated its sweeping a five-game road trip that began Oct. 10 with a 1-0 win in Boston and concluded Monday with a 3-2 overtime victory in Toronto.

The Avalanche won only 14 of 41 road games all last season -- and just three of their final 13 games away from the Pepsi Center.

With newcomers at so many key positions -- including goalies Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, and defensemen Jan Hejda and Shane O'Brien -- are things coming together much quicker than even the Avalanche could have anticipated?
"Maybe," defenseman Erik Johnson said following practice on Wednesday. "I think we knew what we had in the room. I don't know how long it would take us to hit our stride, but we've hit it pretty fast, pretty early. I think some teams might ease into it a little bit more, take a little bit longer to find their groove. We've found our groove pretty early and it's obviously helped us out.


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"Playoffs aren't won in the beginning of the season, but they're lost. A lot of points are given away early on. We want to pick up as much as we can, continue to play the way we can play. If we do that, we should be very successful."
While understandably upbeat about the team's 5-1-0 start -- Colorado dropped a 3-0 home decision to Detroit in the season opener -- coach Joe Sacco and his players aren't about to start celebrating, not with 76 games remaining and the memory of last season's second-half meltdown still all too real.

Sacco made sure to deliver that message on Wednesday.

"A good start for the year for us, but now we have to move ahead here," he told the players before practice. "We want to put it behind us. We want to reflect on the things that we did well, the positive things, and carry them over here moving forward, but we have to look forward to our opponent now."

The Avalanche host the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night at the Pepsi Center, where Varlamov will make his second home start and fifth overall since his July 1 acquisition from Washington in exchange for first- and second-round draft picks.

The Avalanche paid a steep price for the soft-spoken 23-year-old Russian, but he's responded with the kind of goaltending that's been missing in Colorado for some time.
"So far, I feel pretty good," said Varlamov, who has posted a 3-1-0 record with a shutout, 2.17 goals-against average and .938 save percentage. "I tried to work every day very hard, try to do my best job in the game. Nothing special.

"I don't want to talk about myself. I'm a goalie. I can't say I'm good enough. It's all about the team. We work together. If team plays well, me and Jiggy feel more confidence in the net. It's all about the team. We want to win."

Giguere, 34, signed a two-year, $2.5 million contract as a free agent to serve as a backup and mentor for Varlamov. He won both of his starts on the trip and has a 1.49 GAA and .933 save percentage.

"Exceptional," Johnson said of the team's goalies. "Varly has been everything we thought he would be when he came here. We knew he was a big, talented goalie with a lot of potential. He's living up to that potential right now, stolen some games for us, kept us in all games, given us a chance to win.
"You look at Jiggy behind him -- just a great veteran leader who's been there, done that, done a lot of different things for his teams in the NHL. He's stepped in and done a marvelous job for us as well."

So has Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 232-pounder who was acquired in a blockbuster trade with St. Louis last February and is averaging nearly 24 minutes of ice time while anchoring the Avalanche's beefier, rebuilt defense.
"I think we knew what we had in the room. I don't know how long it would take us to hit our stride, but we've hit it pretty fast, pretty early." -- Erik Johnson

"When you look at our full healthy lineup, we're a pretty solid team top to bottom," Johnson said. "We're not going to do anything pretty; we have guys who can make some plays. But we're a north-south team with a lot of speed. Teams have trouble skating with us. I think it's a good matchup with Chicago. We just want to continue our game, put our best foot forward and make sure we keep getting two points."

Aside from goaltending and defense, the Avalanche has gotten balanced scoring -- 10 players have scored goals -- and much-improved play on special teams. Colorado's power play ranks first in the NHL at 31.8 percent and the penalty-killing is fifth at 90.5 percent.

Lines centered by Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny have each collected six goals and four assists, and Ryan O'Reilly's defense-oriented unit has four goals and five assists. Defensemen have contributed one goal and 16 assists.

"We definitely had a good start so far," said right wing Milan Hejduk, 35, the team's elder statesman. "Right now, at this moment, I wouldn't make a huge deal out of it. It's still early. We definitely showed this is a promising team with lots of talent, good goaltending, and will give trouble to any team. Hopefully, we'll keep it up and keep winning hockey games."
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