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State Of The Avalanche: First Quarter Review

Colorado keeps clearing every hurdle this season and is well on the way to the playoffs once again.

Previously, we took stock of the Avalanche season after their first major road trip of the season. Now that the season is a quarter finished, the standings are taking shape. Elite teams are making themselves apparent. Rebuilding teams are already looking forward to next year. Where do the Avalanche fit into the picture?

Offense, Offense, Offense.

A major concern entering the season was forward depth. After doing very little to add via free agency (instead focusing on a minor trade with Phoenix to add Daniel Winnik), and then witnessing major talent Peter Mueller fall victim to yet another concussion, these fears became a reality. What happened? Colorado has become an offensive juggernaut with a young team of unknowns.

Compare Colorado to the New Jersey Devils, winners of the big offseason by signing Ilya Kovalchuk. The Devils are struggling, their playoff aspirations essentially gone. With $41.9 million invested in their forwards, and only 36 goals to show for it, New Jersey has paid approximately $1.17 million per goal scored by forwards this season. Colorado? They are paying $360,000 per goal so far this season, over three times the value.

New Jersey may be an extreme example, but the value is still there when compared to most NHL teams. Colorado has averaged over 4.5 goals per game the past two weeks, and their strategy of outscoring the opposition at all costs has proven viable, even with the injury to T.J. Galiardi, and Mueller yet to play a single game this season. Four players have over 20 points on the season, and six different players have combined to score 10 game winning goals. Even with the top two lines completely in flux, forwards have continued to produce.

Resiliency

The injury to Mueller during the preseason was a sign of future problems. David Jones, Adam Foote, Kyle Quincey, Ryan Wilson, and Craig Anderson have also missed significant time due to injury. In fact, at one point Colorado started four rookie defensemen who had less than 10 games of NHL experience in front of backup goalie Peter Budaj. Two weeks ago, Mile High Hockey attempted to track man-games lost to injury in the Western Conference, and found that the Avalanche have been unfairly bitten by the injury bug. Their depth was tested as young defensive prospects like Jonas Holos, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Colby Cohen were all given chances to perform within the rotation. Players who had put in their AHL time, like Greg Mauldin, were inserted into the third and fourth lines due to injury, and have performed admirably.

Along with Budaj's strong play in net, one of the big surprises has been the emergence of Kevin Porter. Porter, the forgotten piece of the Wolski trade, was called up amidst the many injuries in the first couple weeks of the season. Although he had struggled in earlier callups, Porter has made the most of his playing time recently. He has broken out in a big way, scoring five goals in the past seven games -- including a team leading three game winning goals. Perhaps the most spectacular was the stunning breakaway goal in overtime against San Jose last week to complete the comeback. Porter followed that two days later with the winning shootout goal against Dallas.

Porter has always been talented (he was a First Team All-American and winner of the Hobey Baker Award for Top Collegiate player), but it's taken quite some time for him to harness this talent. With the many injuries surrounding the Avalanche this season, he has made the most of this most recent opportunity and now finds himself sharing some time playing on the first line next to Paul Stastny and Chris Stewart.

Degree of Difficulty

The Colorado Avalanche are in first place of the Northwest Division. They are three points from the number one seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. They have accomplished this while their starting goaltender, top left winger, and four starting defensemen from Opening Night have all missed significant time due to injury. It's obvious they have lucked out with an easy schedule so far this season, correct?

Wrong. They have accomplished all of these feats, shorthanded for most of the season, while facing the second most difficult schedule in the NHL. They trail another young team, the New York Islanders, who have lost 13 games in a row. Colorado has yet to face the West's worst Edmonton Oilers, meaning six games remaining against their division opponent. There are still four games to be played against the struggling Calgary Flames. After the game on Wednesday, November 24, there are only three games remaining against their sole Northwest Division competition, the Vancouver Canucks.

The Avalanche faced an incredibly difficult stretch of games without their best players and thrived in the environment. Now that Craig Anderson is back healthy, and rested, Colorado has a grand opportunity to stretch their division lead against lesser competition and continue their surge to the top of the Western Conference.

This is a team that, while no longer surprising everyone with their speed and pure talent, still hold the capacity to shock the teams they pass in the standings. Sophomore slump? It's looking less and less likely. This team appears playoff bound, even in the difficult West.