DENVER – According to the pre-season predictions, the Colorado Avalanche were supposed to be in for another dreadful season.
Very few pundits thought this team had the makeup or the moxie to be a playoff contender following a last-place finish and a franchise makeover.
The Avalanche had an unproven first-year NHL coach in Joe Sacco, a young squad and an unheralded goalie in Craig Anderson.
It all came together quicker than expected and the Avalanche returned to the playoffs as the eight seed in the West. They’ll face the top-seeded San Jose Sharks in a first-round series starting Wednesday night.
So much for those experts’ hunches.
“I thought before the season, ‘This team isn’t as bad as the predictions are saying,”‘ Milan Hejduk said. “We surprised a lot of people.”
Especially early, when they showed promise by jumping out to a 10-1-2 start that put them on the path toward respectability. The Avalanche were suddenly a faster team, flying down the ice.
An infusion of youth will do that.
Leading the way was Matt Duchene, the teen sensation drafted with the third-overall pick in 2009. He grew up revering the likes of longtime Avs captain Joe Sakic, even hanging posters of Sakic on his bedroom wall.
Like his idol, Duchene was difficult to defend, finding ways to produce. He led all NHL rookies in points (55) and tied for most goals (24) with John Tavares of the New York Islanders.
The only thing that slowed Duchene down was a torso injury late in the season, but the Avalanche are hopeful he will be back in time for Game 1 in San Jose.
“I don’t remember seeing or playing on the same team with a better 19-year-old guy – ever,” Hejduk said. “He’s still young, and already really, really good.”
The Avalanche had one of the youngest teams in the league this season, with players such as Ryan O’Reilly, T.J. Galiardi, Brandon Yip and Chris Stewart also stepping up.
They also acquired Peter Mueller in a trade with Phoenix, another youngster who’s been instant offence since his arrival, accounting for 20 points in 15 games.
However, Mueller has been out with a head injury after a blind-side hit from San Jose’s Rob Blake on April 4. His status for the series remains unknown.
All season long, the Avalanche have been carrying around a chip, feeling like teams were taking them lightly.
By relishing the underdog role, the team flourished.
But when the expectations picked up later in the season, they began to flounder. The Avalanche dropped a crucial game to Calgary that looked like it all but ended their playoff hopes.
Only Colorado regrouped, clinching a playoff spot when Duchene came through with the winning goal in a shootout against Vancouver last week.
Facing the Sharks, the Avalanche revert to their familiar underdog title.
“We don’t mind the role at all,” Hejduk said. “We’ll try to play our hockey and see what happens. We’ll give it everything we have.”
That’s precisely what Sacco preached when he inherited the team soon after last season’s meltdown. He was promoted from the Avalanche’s American Hockey League affiliate, a gritty coach with grand visions.
Sacco talked about establishing an identity, becoming a squad that pursues the puck aggressively and plays on its toes.
“I think the biggest thing is his consistency in holding us accountable and staying at that even keel,” captain Adam Foote said. “That’s what he wanted to rub off on us as a group. I think it has rubbed off.”
Colorado brought in Anderson to be the backbone of the team, even steal a couple of wins in net throughout the season.
Anderson was relied on quite heavily, setting franchise records in starts (71), minutes (4,235) and saves (2,047).
He was up for the task during a season that even exceeded his expectations.
“I knew I could do the job, just needed an opportunity,” Anderson said. “Give the guys a chance to win – that’s what my ultimate goal is.”
Anderson has a solid defence in front of him, one that’s led by Foote. In his 18th season, Foote feels like the old man around the locker-room.
With a roster this young, it’s hard not to. But that youthful energy just adds a spring to his step.
So does returning to the playoffs.
“This is awesome, this is fun – it’s what it’s about,” Foote said. “There’s a lot of hype, a lot of emotion in the air. It’s fun to be around.”