Sunday, December 4, 2011

Canned Heat

In recent years the month of December has not treated the Avalanche well. Last season's December swoon destroyed an early season surge that saw the Avalanche flirting with the best record in hockey. This season the failure began in November, almost as if the team was anticipating a month of self-destruction to end the year. The club once again seemed to lose its motivation, and coach Joe Sacco's days behind the bench appeared numbered.

However, within the last couple of weeks the Avalanche have been showing the kind of resilience that helps pull teams out of the kind of funk that can ruin a season, by losing only once in their last five games. Surely the team didn't magically mature into the kind of club Avalanche faithful have waited for for nearly a decade. Teams don't suddenly become relevant. However there are reasons why the Avalanche are winning, and why fans should not be so quick to dismiss Colorado hockey in a year in which it is all to easy to become absorbed with the traditional religion of the Mile High City.

The Emergence of Ryan O'Reilly

Hockey is the most team oriented of all sports so crediting one person with a turnaround is often unjustified. But whatever happened to Ryan O'Reilly needs to be researched by science. The third line center has become a force of nature since Thanksgiving and has inspired his team to play much stronger hockey. Not to imply that O'Reilly decided to start trying once the last of the turkey was gone, his work ethic is admirable, but counting his two goal performance against a hot Detroit team on Sunday, O'Reilly has nine points in five games after producing a pedestrian twelve points in his previous twenty-two.

O’Reilly has spent much of his time since the beginning of the season with Gabriel Landeskog, who is developing nicely in his own right, but the addition of Milan Hejduk to his line is paying huge dividends. Considering his defensive acumen, using O'Reilly on the third line and on the penalty kill most of his career has made sense. It is hard to argue against using your best defensive forward to stop pucks no matter how much potential he has shown on offense. Jordan Staal of Pittsburgh is a good example of this principle. Yet it appears that giving O'Reilly an opportunity to show what he can do on a consistent basis in offensive situations has been the right move.

Considering how the rest of the offense not named Matt Duchene (who is in a class of is own) has shown a penchant for wildly erratic performances (Colorado's 6-1 victory in New Jersey on November 30th following a 3-1 loss to Dallas, after a 5-2 win against Edmonton), keeping O'Reilly's line together would be smart, and may just help Sacco avoid landing on unemployment.

Mr. Elliott, Your Coffee is Ready

Coming out of training camp it appeared that Stefan Elliott was poised to start a magical career in the NHL. Some of us were so excited to get a jump on the best Avalanche defensemen since Raymond Bourque that we drafted him in our fantasy league...because some of us were drunk off of the sweet, sweet nectar of hyperbole.

Stunningly, the 20-year-old Elliott (the reason the Avalanche traded Kevin Shattenkirk to St. Louis) failed to start the season with the Avalanche and was sent down to the AHL to mature. Not so stunningly after a November in which the team decided to stop playing defense, Elliott was put back on an airplane headed towards Denver. On cue, Mr. Elliott promptly scored in his first game on a great wrist shot from the blue line shortly after making one of those special cut-off-the-crossing-pass-as-the-only-man-back-on-a-two-on-one-break-away type of plays that ol' Ray used to make. Since the call up Elliott has produced three points in five games while maintaining an even plus/minus. But we can't get too excited, can we? Of course not, these are the Colorado Avalanche! We must be reticent and cynical. Recent talk on the inter-tubes has hinted at Elliott being sent down once again, as his non-power play minutes have been cut to a minuscule level due to some shaky turnovers. Yet since his arrival in the November 26th game, the team has only managed to lose once. Coincidence? I think not. Sending Elliott back down to the dominate the AHL once again won't provide him with the kind of learning experiences he needs to develop his game. Now where did I set that jug o' sweet, sweet hyperbole?

Mister Two Goals Against

During the recent run of glory which has me no longer wanting to sling my television out the window, Semyon Varlamov has managed to become the antithesis of nearly every criticism levied upon him by his critics in Washington. Varlamov has remained healthy, while providing consistent and often spectacular play between the pipes, which is welcome considering that whenever the Avalanche score three goals in a game they are 12-3. This statistic isn't all that unusual, normally three goals will win a game. But what is unusual is that the Avalanche have only won one game in which they haven’t scored three goals, a 1-0 win in Boston on October 10th. What this means is that the Avalanche defense has not been stout enough to hold the opposition below three goals very often (they have only done it twice in games they have lost).

This is where Varlamov enters the picture. Since a 6-3 browbeating at the hands of the Penguins on November 15th, Varlamov has allowed the opposition to score more than two goals only twice. To be more specific, Varlamov has put up a goals against average of 2.03 or less in every one of his last six games. Varlamov’s consistency has calmed the team, and is in no small way contributing to their recent success.

While the Avalanche are doing well, and although I have preached on this blog before that fans need to be patient, the recent run of success is rather telling. Key players are maturing and making the most of their opportunities. While it would be presumptuous to think that the team can continue their recent run, at least it is nice to enjoy a span in which the team is heading in the right direction and learning to play more consistently.

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