The Colorado Avalanche have begun the season in sparkling fashion after Monday night's 3-1 triumph over the (admittedly shorthanded) New York Rangers, completing a treacherous five game East Coast road trip with a winning record. This is no small feat, as the teams they faced are all playoff caliber.*
*The loss to the Islanders stung, but that team from Long Island could very well be this year's Avalanche. They are young, they are fast, and they play extremely hard. Expect them to make waves in the Eastern Conference this season, led by future star John Tavares.
But what do we actually know about this team? What conclusions can be drawn after six games, an extremely small sample size within an 82 game season? With the first major road trip in the books, it's time for a few early season observations:
The Colorado Avalanche Have A Potentially Elite First Line.
The combination of TJ Galiardi, Paul Stastny, and Chris Stewart on the first line has proven a devastating force on the ice. Stewart has continued right where he left off from his breakout 2009-2010 campaign with another offensive onslaught, now tied for third in the league with five goals. This scoring is even more impressive considering he's averaging less than 17 minutes of ice time per game, far less than his contemporaries atop the leader board. His physical and aggressive play is matched by his wingmate, TJ Galiardi. Though Galiardi has only tallied two goals on the season, his reckless play on the left wing has opened up holes for Stastny to patiently work behind the net, where he is able to use his superior puck control to find an open man in the crease. (See 1:45 of this video for a perfect example.)
These three players styles mesh perfectly, with two big and aggressive players on the wings outworking their opponents and opening up space for Stastny, a playmaking center who loves handing out assists. All three players are very solid two-way players as well, not afraid to focus on defense and take the opposing top line out of the game completely. Factor in the fact that all three players on this top line are under the age of 25, and you have a collection of young talent that is already demonstrating they will be one of the top young groups in all of hockey this season.
Special Teams Have Been Disappointing.
Even with the two power play goals Monday night against New York, the Avalanche special teams have been terrible. Those two goals doubled their season output and raised their power play percentage from 11.7% to 19%, finally above league average. The Avalanche play well as a full strength club, but can make a push to elite status with a boost in their power play conversions and would likely mean two more wins by the end of season.
The three shorthanded goals allowed is also a major cause for concern. No one else in the league has allowed more than one. (As a point of reference, NHL teams allowed an average of six shorthanded goals last season. Colorado is already halfway there...with 76 games remaining.) The lack of communication on the power play is a major cause of concern going forward. Even if a team doesn't score while holding the man advantage, it's a cardinal sin of hockey to allow the opponent a cheap goal. Three shorthanded goals is three goals too many.
The power play hasn't been the only disappointment in this young season. The Colorado penalty kill is at 81.48% so far this season (which matches last season's league average), but sloppy play has led to extended time in their zone, and a tired defensive core. Quality of penalty kill is less of an issue than the sheer number of penalties offered up. A team that prides itself on speed and puck handling should not give their opponents more chances with an extra skater, and yet the Avalanche have been called for an average of one more penalty per game than their opposition. Many of these penalties are of the hooking and tripping variety; they rank in the top five for penalties within the league.
The Avalanche hovered around league average in both of these categories last season and reading too much into these numbers after only six games is normally foolhardy. In this case, however, the statistics agree with the on-ice results. A simple one game outburst, like Monday night against the Rangers, may statistically mean the Colorado power play is above average, but in the rink it's obvious the squad is still stumbling to find its identity.
This Team Doesn't Know How To Quit
The October 12 victory over the Detroit Red Wings was a perfect capsule of the Avalanche's efforts so far this young season. With Peter Budaj unexpectedly getting the start, Colorado quickly found themselves facing deficits of 1-0, 3-1, and 4-3. Each time, the team responded with crucial goals. Ryan O'Reilly caused a turnover and beat Jimmy Howard right before the second intermission. (Check out 3:20 of this video) Daniel Winnik evened the score a few minutes into the third period by outworking his defenseman. Peter Budaj more than made up for his average game in net by completely stonewalling Detroit in the shootout and stealing a point. This win was a complete team effort in a hostile environment against a Cup contending team. No matter the deficit, they found a way to fight back and eventually earn the victory.
In fact, of the two Avalanche losses on the season, they were only outplayed against a similarly built New York Islanders team. Against Philadelphia, they fought the reigning Eastern Conference champions to a standstill before an unlucky bounce and disputed penalty late in the game doomed their efforts.
They have scored 19 goals on the season, the same number they have allowed. Yet Colorado finds itself atop the Northwest Division despite their goal differential. They have played close games against very tough opponents, and their efforts have given them the edge over more experienced teams. These numbers will even out through the remainder of the season, but winning tight games against very tough opposition, especially on the road, bodes well for the Avalanche.
With a sizable road trip out of the way -- and six of their next eight games at home-- Colorado has a great chance to create some early separation from the rest of their division. They have some growing pains, but so far it's been a very promising start to the season. This team appears to be for real.