The Colorado Avalanche took an enormous leap forward last week, winning four of the last five games en route to a winning record on their homestand. It was against some serious competition as well, as the Avalanche beat the St. Louis Blues and Detroit Red Wings, two of the hottest teams in the NHL. What was the secret to their success?
- Joe Sacco consolidating the lines. Placing Ryan O'Reilly with Milan Hejduk and Gabriel Landeskog has worked wonders. Now, instead of their top forwards being spread out over three lines, Colorado has two legitimate scoring lines. It also allows hard-working forwards like Chuck Kobasew and Daniel Winnik to play against opposing teams' third and fourth lines.
- The play of Semyon Varlamov. After a rough patch, Varlamov has absolutely blossomed in the past few games. In his six starts during this recent homestand, Varlamov went 4-2 with a .939 SV%. Now that is the goalie that GM Greg Sherman traded a first and second round pick for this summer.
So where does Colorado go from here, now that they have gained some momentum at home? A division-heavy schedule lies in wait -- a huge stretch for a Colorado team that has been a dreadful 1-6 in divisional play this year.
Tuesday, December 6 at Vancouver Canucks -- The Canucks started off very slow this season, leading many to question whether or not Roberto Luongo can continue to play in Vancouver. As some have pointed out, he's unlikely to move because of his enormous contract. Yet Vancouver has made great strides of late (Despite Luongo's poor play) thanks to backup goalie Cory Schneider, who has posted a 5-1 record (and an elite .941 SV%) in his last eight games. Newly acquired forward David Booth has been excellent as well, scoring eight points in the last 10 games and leading the team during that period with four goals scored.
Thursday, December 8 at Calgary Flames -- Unlike the Canucks, the Flames have been unable to keep pace in the Northwest Division. Currently in last place with 24 points, the Flames have been steadily falling. They rank 27th in the league in goals scored and their defense has been decidely middle-of-the-pack. With few offensive threats outside of Jarome Iginla, Rene Bourque, and Alex Tanguay, Calgary could be in for a long winter.
Friday, December 9 at Edmonton Oilers -- The young Oilers continue to surprise, even though they have slowed from their hot start. Now in 3rd place in the Northwest, they remain only two points ahead of Colorado in the standings. Their offense -- centered around Jordan Eberle and Calder frontrunner Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has still been electric, but they miss the presence of 2010 top pick Taylor Hall who will miss 2-4 weeks with a shoulder injury. The spectacular goaltending they received earlier this year has tailed off considerably, putting the pressure on the offense to carry the team.
If the Avalanche have truly found a formula for success, this could be a huge week for the club. Win two games, and you make progress in the division. Win all three, and you can make a huge leap in the standings.