With the NHL season officially half over, the Colorado Avalanche find themselves in the midst of the Western Conference playoff hunt. Only six points separate the 4th and 12th place teams in the Conference, meaning that four playoff quality teams will be left on the outside of the postseason. Even with their recent struggles, the Avalanche find themselves still surviving the gauntlet. Furthermore, with Chris Stewart on the brink of returning from a fractured hand (he's missed the past six weeks), Colorado has a great chance of making a move up the Conference standings.
But where do they stand right now? With 43 games in the books, how do the Colorado Avalanche rate? There are several key elements to dissect in order to understand the first half of this season.
Last season's Avalanche team rode into the playoffs on the shoulders of Craig Anderson. This year, the goaltending has been one of the greatest disappointments and is becoming a handicap to the Avalanche's success.
|2010 - Craig Anderson||24||1369||11||9||70||3.07||715||645||.902||0|
These numbers aren't great (especially the save percentage), but a closer look at some splits demonstrate that Craig Anderson has been much worse than average.
Let's try sorting his shots faced by situation; in even strength hockey, Anderson carries a .918 SV%. When the Avalanche are trying to kill a penalty, this number drops to .843%. When the Avalanche are on the power play, Anderson holds a .789% against shorthanded shots.
As mediocre as Anderson has been, Peter Budaj has actually performed worse. Budaj's even strength? .917 SV%. Penalty kill? .811 SV%, third worst in the NHL amongst goalies who have played at least 20 games.
As a tandem, both goalies have underperformed this season. Some of these numbers can be attributed to a lack of defensive focus and a very poor team penalty kill (more on this later), but the Avalanche goalies are not stealing any points in the standings.
Here is the Avalanche's real strength as a team. As long as they can stay out of the penalty box, they are able to outskate and outhustle essentially every team they play. The Avalanche lead the league with 108 even strength goals. They currently rank fifth in the NHL in Even Strength Goals For/Against ratio at 1.25 -- a number that was much higher two weeks ago before the current offensive slide. Only one team in the past three seasons (2007-2008 Carolina Hurricanes) has failed to make the playoffs after finishing the season ranked in the NHL top ten in Even Strength goal ratio. A strong showing here essentially guarantees you a spot in the playoffs, and this is the biggest advantage that Colorado currently holds over other teams fighting for their playoff lives.
Currently ranked ninth in the league at 20.13%, the Avalanche power play hasn't killed the team, but it's not the strength that you would expect with names like Paul Stastny, Milan Hejduk, and Matt Duchene frequently manning the first unit together. Injuries have been a major concern, as Chris Stewart and T.J. Galiardi --both physical forwards that thrive on crashing the net-- have missed significant time this season. If this article had been written two weeks ago, the Avalanche would have one of the top statistical power play units in the league. Some regression and simple bad luck has dragged this number down, but team health and time should bring this unit back towards elite status.
The penalty kill is another story. The Avalanche penalty kill has been so bad (killing 76.37% of penalties) that any call against Colorado has resulted in a goal. Colorado leads the league in power play goals against at 40. The Detroit Red Wings scored all four of their goals on the power play on Dec. 27; The New York Islanders scored three of their four goals on the power play on Jan. 8. These two overtime losses were two lost points in the standings, a direct result of a dreadful penalty kill.
The past ten games, the Colorado penalty kill has only successfully neutralized 71.4% of penalties they have faced. If the Avalanche have playoff aspirations, they need to figure out a way to avoid exposing this Achilles' Heel.
Aside from the special teams, the true weakness for the Colorado Avalanche this season has been their lackluster play within the division. Even though the Northwest Division is by far the weakest in the Western Conference this season, Colorado has only amassed a 3-7-1 record in divisional play, gaining seven of a possible 22 points so far. At the beginning of the season, I made the argument that the Avalanche need to at least split the season series with the Vancouver Canucks to have a chance to compete within the division.
The Avalanche will likely control their own division fate this season based on how well they match up against Vancouver. If they stay competitive in those games, the Northwest Division title will go down to the final week of the season.
Their current record against the best-in-the-NHL Canucks? 0-3-1, while being outscored by a 13-7 margin in those games. It's no surprise that Vancouver currently holds the top seed in the West and has basically wrapped up the Northwest Division crown by January.
So What Does This All Mean?
There is hope for Colorado fans. Despite playing with new forward lines every night for the past two months, suffering long-term injuries to many of their best players, having inconsistent (bad) goaltending for most of the year, and reinventing themselves through trade, Colorado is still a top eight seed in the West. That is no small feat. Chris Stewart will return to the ice within the next week, and will immediately give the Avalanche a dominant physical presence they have lacked all season.
The Avalanche can play with any team in the league at even strength, and have incredible depth at forward. Injuries have actually helped Colorado as players such as Greg Mauldin, Kevin Porter, and Phillippe Dupuis have all been given ice time to grow and develop. Once the team is at full strength, Colorado will be able to roll out potent offensive lines, a boast that very few teams can make.
Colorado still has 13 divisional games left this season (only two against Vancouver) to gain some separation in the playoff hunt, and most of those are against the struggling Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. If the Avalanche can get healthy and improve their divisional play, they are likely in the playoffs.
As bad as the special teams and goaltending have been this year, it's incredibly unlikely they can get any worse. Since the Avalanche have been holding onto a playoff spot despite these glaring flaws, they are very likely to make up ground in the standings once these elements of their game improve.
This is certainly a flawed Colorado team, but an incredibly potent one that has yet to put everything together this season. Stay healthy, and the sky is the limit.