Coach Joe Sacco hopes the Colorado Avalanche are too wide-eyed and inexperienced to get overly worried about being in the NHL playoffs.
After all, this was a team that nearly everyone, with good reason, picked to finish at or near the bottom of the Western Conference this season. Instead, they rode Craig Anderson’s goaltending and fine play by a crop of rookies to the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.
Now the concern is that they will be satisfied just to make it to the post-season and bow out early, but their rookie coach said they may still have a surprise or two up their sleeves.
“Hopefully they don’t know any better,” Sacco said Thursday on a conference call. “That was what happened at the start of the season.
“We had such a good start, in part large part because I don’t think a lot of our young guys knew it was supposed to be hard. We just went out and played and we had success. So I’m hoping we regain that same kind of focus and feeling we had moving into the playoffs. Just go out and play our game and really not try to think too much.”
The Avs were last in the West last season and cleaned house in the summer, bringing Greg Sherman in as general manager and sacking coach Tony Granato. They also lost long-time leader and star centre Joe Sakic to retirement.
When goaltending legend Patrick Roy turned down the job, Sacco was named coach after two losing seasons with the AHL Lake Erie Monsters.
But with two 18-year-old centres in the lineup – third overall draft pick Matt Duchene and second-rounder Ryan O’Reilly – Colorado shot out to a 10-1-2 start, which included a seven-game road trip.
The Avalanche used 10 rookies over the course of their injury-filled season and, despite a post-Olympic fade, clinched a playoff spot with a 4-3 win over Vancouver on Tuesday. Going into their final two games of the season, they are already 24 points ahead of their 2008-09 total.
“I used the phrase ‘playing on our toes’ a lot – being the team that set the tone and not reacting to the tone,” said Sacco. “Those messages, along with a real good solid core of youth injected into our lineup (and) some experienced players and solid goaltending all season long has really helped.”
Anderson was their top free agent signing and, as a starting goalie for the first time in his career, has played a team-record 70 games and gone 38-25-6 with a tidy .916 save percentage and 2.64 goals-against average.
Rookie of the year candidate Duchene leads NHL freshmen with 55 points, including 24 goals, while rookie T.J. Galiardi is sixth among first-year skaters with 39 points. Another rookie winger, Brandon Yip, has 11 goals.
Second-year forward Chris Stewart took a step forward and leads the team with 28 goals. They also picked up big forward Peter Mueller from Phoenix at the trade deadline for Wojtek Wolski and he had 20 points in 15 games before he suffered a concussion from a hit by San Jose’s Rob Blake on Sunday.
Mueller is expected to miss the end of the regular season but there is no word yet on whether he will be out for the playoffs. Sacco said only that he is gone indefinitely and “there’s no timetable on his return.”
In the playoffs, the Avs will face whichever team finishes first in the West – either the Chicago Blackhawks, who visit Denver on Friday night, or the San Jose Sharks.
Sacco said either would be a challenge for his club, but feels they’ve matched up well against both in the regular season.
“With San Jose, the challenge is obviously the size and strength of the (Joe) Thornton, (Dany) Heatley, (Partrick) Marleau line,” he said. “We all know their skills, but the problem they present is their size and their ability to really control the play down low in the offensive zone.
They also have very good depth. With the Blackhawks, you look at their overall team speed and depth up front.”
Sacco is also convinced that a letdown after the Olympic break in February was only a bump in the road. The Avs are 8-9-2 since play resumed, but he said the team may have turned the corner with an emotional overtime win Sunday over San Jose.
“We hit our adversity at that point,” he said. “Every team in the league has a sequence like that during the season at some point.”
And now they are one of the darkhorses heading into the post-season.
“Expectations were fairly low for us to start the year,” Sacco said. “We’ve earned the right to be a playoff team, but I don’t think we have any concerns heading into the playoffs.
“We should look at it now that we’ve accomplished the first goal – to make the playoffs -and now it’s up to us to try to make some noise in the playoffs. Obviously, we’re a team that is not one of the favourites to come out of the Western Conference, but I always feel that once you get into the tournament anything can happen.”