Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Backup

After watching the Avalanche sweep their season series against the Blues for the first time in their history two thoughts occurred to me. First, the Avalanche have evolved into the kind of dangerous team that must be taken seriously down the stretch and into the playoffs. They have the kind of swagger and confidence that can take them deep this year. Second, if Craig Anderson were to go down with an injury, does the Avalanche team that must be taken seriously suddenly become a paper tiger?

It is surprising that the national hockey media has only recently taken enough notice of Anderson's accomplishments to throw him into MVP discussions, when Avalanche fans know he should be a favorite. Coming over from Florida, Anderson looked like a somewhat reliable stop-gap solution until the Avalanche could mature into a strong team. Yet for people who know a thing or two about goaltending, one only needed to look at Anderson's solid save percentages (.931, .935, .924) as Tomas Vokoun's backup to surmise that Anderson might be better than just a short term solution.

What Anderson has accomplished is that he has allowed a very young team to mature by providing steady, reliable, and often spectacular goaltending. Did anyone think that Anderson would be this good? Hardly. But at the very least the team in front of him hasn't had to worry about having to back check very hard, which has allowed them to focus on developing cohesiveness on other areas of the ice, and become a free wheeling, high scoring team.

Yet as much as Craig Anderson has been a steadying force for Avalanche all that they have accomplished as a team may come crashing to Earth if they have to rely on Peter Budaj to win them a playoff series.

I don't want to be too hard on Budaj, he has shown during his career with the Avalanche that he is capable of coming in and holding the fort. Yet last season when he was a starter for this team and was allowed to get a rhythm, he was mostly average, and occasionally terrible. Budaj blocked the shots that should have been blocked, but he was also prone to the kind of lapses that make fans tug their hair out in clumps. This season he has been better, and is enjoying a career high .925 save percentage backing up Anderson.

Still, what struck me about the game tonight against the Blues, in a game where the Avalanche needed points to stay in the hunt for the Northwest Division, was that Budaj pulled an "Abby", i.e a David Aebischer, in allowing a goal off of the opening faceoff. Keep in mind this was the same Blues team that Budaj capably shut out in December. The Avalanche won the game, but they won't win many with spotty goaltending of that variety.

As everyone knows the NHL playoffs are difficult and dangerous. Every player on every team presses extremely hard and momentum shifts decide games. As the Avalanche learned during their "super team" years, a bad goal allowed by an unfocused goaltender can be deadly.

In this the most improbable of seasons, the Avalanche not only look to be a team of the future, but they look like a team of the present. Craig Anderson has allowed them to develop and reach heights that nobody anticipated six months ago. Yet should misfortune strike, the fate of this team could rest on the shoulders of Peter Budaj. Is he ready to carry the weight if that time comes?