The only thing most people figured the Colorado Avalanche would win this season is the draft lottery.
They were an easy team to write off after losing heart-and-soul captain Joe Sakic to retirement over the summer and that’s what just about every pre-season prognosticator did.
The Canadian Press predicted a 15th-place finish in the Western Conference. The Hockey News slotted them 14th. Five contributors on Yahoo’s Puck Daddy blog had the Avs finishing dead last in the Northwest Division.
Strangely, it might be one of the best things that could have happened to the unheralded Avalanche, who have found a way to use the bad press as motivation. At 4-1-1, they are the biggest surprise in the NHL so far this season and one of the driving forces behind their success has been the desire to prove the pundits wrong.
“We haven’t really talked about that as a group, but I think any player that has pride certainly takes it personal,” said coach Joe Sacco. “Our guys are responding. We have a good work ethic, we work extremely hard on most nights. Two things we were looking for in training camp were energy and effort, and usually when you have those two things, you get execution. We’ve been able to do that.”
Top centre Paul Stastny describes the mood surrounding the Avalanche as “a nothing to lose mentality.”
It’s little wonder when you consider the team’s roster feature a journeyman goalie getting his first crack at a No. 1 job (Craig Anderson), two 18-year-old centres (Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly) and a slew of players most devoted hockey fans would be at a loss to name (David Jones? T.J. Galiardi? Matt Hendricks? Cody McLeod? Kyle Cumiskey?).
However, that group of players has managed to find a winning formula with the help of veterans like Adam Foote, Darcy Tucker and Milan Hejduk.
“From the start of the season, I think we all wanted to reprove ourselves,” said Stastny. “Last year was a tough year all around – everyone’s started from scratch.”
It couldn’t have started much better.
After opening with victories over San Jose and Vancouver at home, they set out on a seven-game road trip and will make the fifth stop on that journey in Montreal on Thursday night. Getting the chance to go away early in the season has been helpful.
“It’s almost good that we’re on the road,” said Sacco. “The young kids don’t really know what they’re getting into just yet. It’s a good time of the year for us to go on the road as a team and it’s a good time to bond together.”
Sacco was hired in the off-season and seems to have quickly established some structure – Colorado is second in the league on the power play and fifth in penalty killing.
Another bright spot has been the play of Anderson, who showed flashes of brilliance while serving as the backup in Florida last season. He’s started all six games for Colorado this year and ranks among the league leaders with a .940 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average.
The 28-year-old is brimming with confidence about the prospects for the season.
“We’ve got a great young dynamic team that’s going to do something special every once and awhile,” said Anderson. “I’m not sitting back there wondering if we’re going to get another goal. If we’re down by one, I know these guys are going to step up and get a goal for us.”
The guy he singled out is Duchene, who has yet to score despite creating several great chances.
While the Avalanche have yet to officially announce that he’ll stay in the NHL all season, it seems unlikely that Duchene will be sent back to the OHL’s Brampton Battalion. That suits the 18-year-old from Haliburton, Ont., just fine.
“It’s definitely a thrill (being here),” said Duchene. “I’m just so excited every day to come to the rink. Every time I throw on that jersey it’s pretty surreal. Every now and then, you get a chance out on the ice to stand there and go: ‘Wow, what am I doing here?’ It’s pretty amazing.”
That kind of attitude seems to have infected everyone in the team’s dressing room.
Even though the players acknowledge that an inevitable rough patch will come their way eventually, they believe it will be something they can manage. The Avs fully intend to remain in the playoff mix throughout the season – even if most people still don’t think it’ll happen.
“We’re just building on each game,” said Stastny. “When you start like this, it make it easier and makes it more fun. We just want to keep this energy going.”
Rick Nash – a good bet to play on Sidney Crosby’s wing at the Vancouver Games – has nine points over his last four games … Heading into play on Wednesday, Sharks teammates Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton led all Canadian players with 10 points, while Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards was tops with six goals … The injury bug has already hit some key players from other countries: Habs defenceman Andrei Markov (Russia) and Red Wings forward Johan Franzen (Sweden) are both out four months and might miss the Olympics as a result.
The second week of the season has seen a fairly big shift in our power rankings. Here’s how we see the top and bottom of the league at the moment:
1. Pittsburgh. Marc-Andre Fleury has been on quite a roll.
2. N.Y. Rangers. Marian Gaborik is loving Manhattan.
3. Los Angeles. Ryan Smyth is turning back the clock.
4. Buffalo. Could be a surprise contender in the Eastern Conference.
5. Colorado. How long will the good play last?
26. Detroit. They’ve played five games and allowed 19 goals. Yikes.
27. N.Y. Islanders. The games might be close, but they’re still losing.
28. Minnesota. The road hasn’t be very friendly so far.
29. Florida. After opening the season with a win in Finland, it’s been a rocky ride.
30. Toronto. Ron Wilson has started three different goalies, benched two of his top scorers and still doesn’t have a win.
“I think that we were still in a pre-game nap mode, it seemed like they scored five shifts in a row.” – Blackhawks forward Andrew Ladd on falling behind Calgary 5-0 this week before pulling out a 6-5 victory in overtime.