On the morning of Feb. 25, Colorado Avalanche head coach Joel Quenneville remembers waking up feeling a little gloomy about things.
Boy was that about to change. “We were four points out of a playoff spot and it was an ugly picture because we came off a really disappointing loss the night before in Edmonton,” Quenneville recalled Friday. “All of sudden we’re four points out and that’s a lot of ground (to make up). But we did get a lot of excitement (from the trade deadline moves).”
Later that day the Avs signed free-agent centre Peter Forsberg, stunning many, including Quenneville himself. Less than 24 hours later they added veteran defencemen Adam Foote and Ruslan Salei.
By the time the Avs hit the ice for the next game Feb. 26 at Calgary, they were a different group. They responded by winning that night, and then the next night in Vancouver, and then again and again and again.
They’re a perfect 5-0-0 since the trade deadline day heading into a key home-and-home series with the Dallas Stars this weekend.
“The room was definitely excited after those moves,” veteran star Joe Sakic told The Canadian Press on Friday. “It picks you up and gives you a little bit more confidence. By doing all that, it shows that the management staff is doing its part to give us that extra push. The guys have really responded and the dressing room is definitely feeling pretty confident right now.”
Avs GM Francois Giguere raised some eyebrows in making those moves with his team out of a playoff spot at the time. He said he had promised Sakic that he would do whatever he could to help his team go for it this season. Bringing Foote and Forsberg back into the Avalanche fold is as good as it gets.
“We’ve got real good young players here and they’ve played well,” said Sakic. “But to able to get those two guys back, you can just feel the energy and the belief is back to where it once was.”
The Avs were seventh in the West with 78 points – two more than ninth-place Nashville – before NHL games Friday night. They’ve continued to win lately despite losing two key goal-scorers in the same game last Saturday when Marek Svatos and Ryan Smyth went down. Svatos (torn ACL) is out for the season but Smyth (concussion and shoulder) may be back soon.
“I don’t think he’s going to be out that long,” Quennevile said.
The injuries are just the latest in a long line this year for Colorado, who also missed Sakic, Smyth (a different injury) and Paul Stastny for long stretches. That the Avs have been able to survive has many people in and around the NHL suggesting Quenneville should be a top candidate for the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year.
“We’ve had a lot of man-games lost to injury this year and he’s done a great job,” Sakic said of his coach. “With the systems and line combinations and bringing in the young guys and giving them the confidence for them to step up, I think Joel has done a tremendous job for us.”
Quenneville points to his goaltender, Jose Theodore.
“We’ve been playing pretty well and Jose’s been the most significant reason for me,” said Quenneville.
Theodore’s play in the second half of the season has him looking like the Theodore of old, the one that captured the Hart and Vezina trophies in 2002 with Montreal.
“He’s been outstanding for us – what a great bounceback year,” said Sakic. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence. You can just tell in his demeanour, in practice, he’s got that confidence back to where he had it before and he’s been the difference-maker this year.”
Sakic, meanwhile, is beginning to catch his stride after missing nearly three months because of a sports hernia. He has two goals and one assist in six games since returning Feb. 24.
“It’s coming,” said Sakic. “The first few games you’re still a little bit tight and you’re trying to find yourself. But the last 2-3 games I feel a lot better on the ice and starting to feel a lot more comfortable on skates. I’m imagining that it’s only going to get better from here on out.”
That’s not good news for the rest of the Western Conference.