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Rookies Duchene, O'Reilly rely on friendship

by Rick Sadowski
CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- Practice had been over for nearly an hour and Colorado Avalanche rookies Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly were still on the ice, shooting pucks at backup goalie Peter Budaj and working on their passing.

Finally, after O'Reilly completed his post-practice routine of using his stick to flip pucks into a bucket -- "Something I did in junior, just a fun thing to do," he said -- the 18-year-olds headed to the dressing room.

After that, it was off to the hotel room they have been sharing since training camp began in September.

Duchene and O'Reilly have been inseparable since they were selected in the first and second round, respectively, in the 2009 Entry Draft in Montreal.

"We get along real well," Duchene said. "We both like country music and the same types of rock. We like different action movies and we have the same taste in humor. It seems like everything he likes, I like, and vice-versa.

"We've been really close friends for a while and that friendship is even growing more."

The friendship dates to 2008, when they helped Team Ontario win a gold medal in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.

"We really got to know each other then, during our rookie years in the OHL," Duchene said. "We played together on all-star teams and things like that. He and I are very close friends. When he got drafted, I was really, really excited. I talked to him right away and congratulated him. I know he'll be a life-long friend for sure."

More congratulations were in order when both made the Avalanche's 23-man roster to begin the season.

For Duchene, this was expected; drafted third overall, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound center is one of the main cogs in the Avalanche's rebuilding program. But it wasn't necessarily the case for O'Reilly, a 6-foot, 200-pounder who can play center and right wing.

Selected with the first of the Avalanche's two second-round picks (No. 33), O'Reilly became the youngest player in Colorado history (18 years, 236 days) and the second youngest in franchise history (behind Quebec's Owen Nolan, 18 years, 234 days) to suit up for a regular-season game.

"Just the experience with Matt has been awesome," O'Reilly said. "We're both going through the exact same feelings and nervousness, and it's nice to have someone in the same situation to talk to about it.

"I probably expected to be back in junior, but in the back of my mind I was thinking, 'I'll come here and make this team, do whatever I can to find a spot here.' It's always been in my head, but I kind of surprised myself. I didn't think I'd be around this long. I'm still day by day, trying to prove that I can play here."

Neither is guaranteed a roster spot for the entire season.

Both have junior eligibility, so they aren't permitted to spend time in the minors. They could be returned to their junior teams -- Duchene to the Brampton Battalion and O'Reilly to the Erie Otters. But if either plays in a 10th NHL game, he would be considered a pro for the whole year in matters such as progressing toward free agency and likely would stay on the roster.

"The next step is to get to that 10th game. We're just trying to make it past that barrier and help the team get off to a good start," said Duchene, who is centering the Avalanche's second line with Cody McLeod on left wing and Marek Svatos on the right side. "I almost feel like I'm a rookie in junior again."

"Every time I walk into the arena and they've got that picture of (Joe) Sakic holding the Stanley Cup up, it's pretty special."
-- Matt Duchene

O'Reilly has been skating in the middle on the fourth line with David Koci on the left and Matt Hendricks on the right.

"We'll evaluate their play after every game and see how they're progressing and fit in," coach Joe Sacco said. "We'll look at what's best for the team and what's best for them. We'll need to make sure they're getting good playing time here and fill a role, that they're not just here watching."

Duchene is a smart, two-way player with good speed and the ability to dipsy-doodle around an opponent. Already a fan favorite, he has a hard shot and is getting plenty of time on the power-play and penalty-killing units.

"At 18, I can't even imagine playing against 30-  and 35-year-olds," defenseman John-Michael Liles said. "Matt's a guy that sees the ice very well. He has great speed and great hands. At the same time, he's got very good lower body strength that allows him to fight off checkers. He's only going to get bigger and stronger and better.

"Some people are going to compare him to Joe (Sakic), just because of what Joe meant to this organization. But he's got to find his own way and be his own man."

O'Reilly isn't flashy, but he's very responsible in his own end -- rather rare for one so young -- and he can kill penalties and win faceoffs, two things the Avalanche hasn't done very well in recent seasons.

"This is where I want to be," said O'Reilly, who had 16 goals and 50 assists in 68 games for Erie last year. "To make it reality is a great feeling. I hope to be here the whole year. I know it's a day-by-day thing, and I have to do whatever I can do to impress them."
"We're both going through the exact same feelings and nervousness, and it's nice to have someone in the same situation to talk to about it." - Ryan O'Reilly
Duchene has been skating on air since draft day, when he was selected by the team he cheered for while growing up in Haliburton, Ontario.

"Draft day was surreal," said Duchene, who had 31 goals and 48 assists in 57 games for Brampton last season. "I watched it on YouTube probably five or six times because I didn't get to enjoy every minute of it when it happened because it just shocks you. It's still crazy. Every time I walk into the arena and they've got that picture of Sakic holding the Stanley Cup up, it's pretty special.

"I still have my Sakic and (Patrick) Roy autographed jerseys that my grandpa got me, and I have a (Peter) Forsberg Philadelphia jersey and an Avs jersey. I have a road hockey mask that I painted so it was like Patrick Roy's."

No is expecting Duchene and O'Reilly ever to match the accomplishments of those Avalanche icons. But, so far, the kids are all right.

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