As the Avalanche slide into another unexpected three game winning streak, I have again found myself in the realm of over (perhaps unrealistic) optimism.
Maybe I'm simply overjoyed at being able to rub the Avalanche's recent win over the Penguins in the face of all their fans for the next week and the optimism is only a by-product of that elation. (Did I mention that the Avalanche were without it's two best offensive players, it's best defensive defenseman (arguably), and it's #1 role player?) Wow!
Whatever the motivation may be, my wheels are again turning towards the good side of the "what if" equation, where potential exists for a light at the end of the tunnel so bright that you'll need Doc Brown's 2015 style sunglasses to cope.
Much like last year, the Avalanche have somehow managed to put themselves in a position where finishing 13th wouldn't surprise any more people than finishing 5th would. Most importantly, with a few breaks the Avalanche have a glimmer of hope to enter the playoffs...
Yes, playoffs, and actually do so as the team that nobody wants to play.
The Bold Assumption
The Avalanche can continue to coast at their current pace, hanging somewhere between 6th and 13th in West dependant on what they did in their last game and who else has played/won since. The actual place does not matter so much, so long as 8th remains within a few points when the Ides of March come calling.
Realization Number 1
The emergence of Wojtek Wolski, better known amongst better fans as Baron Von Wolski. The Baron has gone from average 3rd line winger to capable temporary first line center almost overnight. This is essential not only to TBA, but also a crucial factor in the final equation.
Realization Number 2
The Avalanche have a capable tandem of goalies. Sorry Raycroft fans, but Andrew Raycroft is not awesome. Sorry Budaj fans, but your dude isn't amazing either. However, what they both are, together, is two NHL goalies capable of giving their team a chance to win on any given night. No, this certainly shouldn't be the goal of the franchise for the position long term, but Budaj and Raycroft are giving the support necessary to make TBA at least a possibility.
The Inevitability Factor
Though no one knows what Joe Sakic will do next season, he will be back this season. When he comes back, he will join Paul Stastny. Thanks to RN1, sometime in March, the Avalanche will have 3 awesome centers.
Foppa on My Mind
So long as the Avalanche continue on the path to making TBA a reality, Peter Forsberg will be back. When he does, Peter Forsberg will be awesome. It could not possibly have been made more clear last season that when Peter Forsberg is in the lineup, he is a gamebreaker.
The Final Equation
RN1 + RN2 = TBA + TIF + FOMM = An Avalanche team capable of making one last run at the Stanley Cup in the Sakic, Forsberg, Foote, Hejduk era.
I know, I know, it sounds crazy and I warned you that I was feeling a little too positive today, but get past the ridiculousness of the way it sounds and review the evidence above.
Typically, I hate typing up line combinations as a point of discussion, but I'll compromise my integrity just this once to demonstrate how potent this Avalanche roster can realistically end up when the regular season ends.
Again, I made no effort to match chemistry on those lines, only to show depth. The return of Stas, Sakic, and Fors makes the Avalanche a team capable of rolling 3 very potent offensive lines and a hard hitting 4th line capable of playing very solid defense. If that isn't enough to rev your engine, did I mention that Darcy Tucker and Tyler Arnason would become healthy scratches on a nightly basis? You're welcome, Denver.
The defensive lineup can remain the same as it is now. Are they playing like a playoff team today? No, but the personnel in place are certainly capable of playing at the level necessary. They did it last year without Brett Clark, who is certainly capable of playing better hockey than he has been lately. There is plenty of time for this squad to get to where it needs to be to make the Avalanche tough defensively.
The biggest area of concern is the goaltending situation. And, it will have to remain the question mark going into the playoffs unless Giguere is able to get something done in the meantime. Khabibulin makes too much money to come here, let it go folks, please. If Giguere can bring in any goalie with mild playoff experience and subtle success, I will feel a whole lot better. Still, though there is no questioning that Raycroft and Budaj should not be any GM's best case scenario heading into the playoffs, they have been able to put a very mediocre Avalanche team into a position to make the playoffs. My intent is not to fuel a goaltending debate, but simply illustrate that anything is possible.
There is some hope for the Avalanche this season. No, they will never be favorites to win anything, but as demonstrated at the end of the regular season last year and against the Wild in the first round of the playoffs, this Avalanche team is dangerous when healthy. Though it seems like so much has changed since then, the reality is that should Forsberg make it back, the only difference in the Avalanche roster from last to this year is Jose Theodore, two defenseman that were usually healthy scratches, a talented European that was constantly sratched more than he deserved (Hlinka), and Andrew Brunette. Yeah, I miss Bruno too, but he isn't exactly setting the world on fire this year, so c'est la vie.
Whether a change is made to the goalie situation or not, the Avalanche will have an offense capable of putting lots of goals on the board and a defensive corps capable of limiting the other team's chances.
The other exponentially less sexy possibility is that my intricate and complex scientific equation breaks down, Sakic never heals, the goaltending doesn't hold up, Wolski goes back to playing wing, and/or Forsberg never comes back. Then, the Avalanche finish 13th in the West.
Still, with a few breaks, the Avalanche actually have a chance.
With the way that the first half of the season has gone, can you really ask for more than that?