First the good news: The Colorado Avalanche have had a lead at the start of the 3rd period 23 times this year, tops in the league. And now the bad news: The Avs are 17-3-3 in those games, and those 6 losses are also tops in the league. As good as the Avalanche have been, they've squandered 9 points in the 3rd period this year.
The Avalanche have been excellent this year at generating leads. They've outscored their opponent 37-31 in the first period. The Avalanche are a young, fast, aggressive team and more often than not they are the better team out of the starting blocks. And they get better in the 2nd period, where they hold a dominating 48-33 advantage. By averaging more than a goal a game in the 2nd period, the Avs are usually able to either a) shake off a rare slow start to get back into the game or b) extend an existing lead.
Too bad that the league forces teams to play 3 periods then. The Avalanche have been, in a word, terrible in the 3rd period this year. They've been outscored 45-31 and outshot 441-307. The Avs do give up more shots than they take, but that 134 shot deficit in the 3rd is worse than the first two periods combined (114).
As bad as those numbers look, it's worse if you look at games where the Avs had a lead going into the 3rd period. In those 23 games, the Avs have been outscored 26-14 with a massive 264-147 shot advantage for the opponent.* When leading after two, the Avalanche have shut it down offensively and defensively (and not in a good way). While it might make sense to try to extend the lead, the Avalanche offense goes into a shell. 12 out of the 23 times they haven't scored any 3rd period goals, and only 3 times have they managed more than 1 (the Dallas game being one of those games). The Avalanche have had the shot advantage in such games just 4 times. 10 times they've managed just 5 shots or less, while they've given up 10 shots or more a whopping 14 times. The Avalanche have been very good this year through the first two periods and pretty good in the 3rd when they don't have the lead. With the lead, though? Awful.
Why is this? I floated around a theory a few weeks ago that Joe Sacco's limited use of the 4th line (David Koci joke goes here) as the game wore on was perhaps fatiguing the other players in the 3rd. I couldn't find any statistical evidence of this, however. Looking at the ice times, most players seemed to have a relatively even distribution of shifts by period (in fact, often a more even distribution than our opponent). The Avalanche have just 3 players in the top 100 in TOI/G (Quincey, Hannan and Stastny) and just 4 players averaging 20 minutes per game (those 3, plus Foote). I don't think my fatigue theory holds water.
So, is it as simple as poor execution from an inexperienced - and still inconsistent - young club? Is the Avalanche coaching staff abandoning the aggressive game too early? Is it just a statistical oddity? Whatever the reason, this as an area that needs to get nailed down. The Avalanche are leaving points on the table and wasting some excellent 40-minute efforts in the process. The cliche about a long season left applies in full here; with just a 3-point lead in the NW, the Avalanche can't afford to be giving these points away.
* I did these stats by hand, and I know they aren't 100% correct, but they are reasonably close