While thankfully the Avalanche haven't reverted to the same form they've become prone to in recent seasons, they certainly are not winning like the did in October. We've been conditioned to be patient and pragmatic through a few seasons that were more entertaining for the prized prospects added during the offseason than the play on the ice come game time. So one could be forgiving to appreciate the .500 record. Avalanche fans certainly didn't expect their team to dominate the NHL, and win 70 games before the 2014 Playoffs.
October now seems like a distant memory as the playoff race in the Central Division is proving to be one of the more difficult in the league. The Avalanche are 6-6 in their last 12 games. The St. Louis Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks have established their places as the two teams to beat, and Minnesota is becoming a more daunting task as the season progresses. As of today at 11 AM (12/10/2013), the Colorado Avalanche sit at the 8th spot in a crowded Western Conference, with the Phoenix Coyotes nipping at their heels.
So how does the team stay afloat through the 82-game-schedule? I'm sure you won't be surprised that they need good offense and good defense.
Goaltending, however, shouldn't be a concern. While Varlamov has had a couple bad games this season, the Russian goaltender still has produced a very respectable 13-7 record (.923/2.43 GAA). However, one may wonder why the veteran wasn't given more games instead, considering his record is 7-1 (.940/1.84 GAA). J.S. Giguere finally lost a game in a 3-1 loss against Vancouver. Otherwise, he has been brilliant in his role as the teams relief goaltender. Even more crucial to the teams success, however, is almost certainly Giguere's qualities as a leader inside the locker room. His team feeds off his experience, drive, and an organic passion to win.
One theme in the Patrick Roy Era seems to be the development of the players consistency on a game-to-game basis. For the first 20 games, this obviously hadn't been a problem for the quick and shifty Avalanche forwards. But the team's top guys have seemed to hit a wall in the past 5 games. Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly have combined for zero goals and two assists. Paul Stastny hasn't scored a point in 6 games. Winger P.A. Parenteau's 2 goals against Calgary and Edmonton make up his point total for his last 7 games.
This isn't to say that the offense has totally dried up. Captain Gabe Landeskog (6 points in his last 5 games) has quietly been the most consistent forward on the team, while Nathan MacKinnon is beginning to put up more points as he becomes more comfortable playing at the elite level (4 points in his last 5 games). The Avalanche are also starting to see more production from the third line as of late and are anticipating the return of veteran winger Alex Tanguay. But if the objective is to win consistently, those core guys need to produce. With such tight races in the divisional standings, our forward group can't afford to take of 5 games at a time and expect to be bailed out by the team's goaltending and Erik Johnson.
Afterall, Jan Hejda has suffered a knee sprain after playing the best hockey of his career and should be counted on to be rushed back into the lineup. Perhaps too soon... as in this Saturday. Ryan Wilson has been out with a bad back for some time, but was susceptible to turnovers and the occasional bad decision prior to his injury. Nate Guenin has been a pleasant surprise and very serviceable, but is noticeably out of place on the top pairing. Andre Benoit, Tyson Barrie, Cory Sarich, and Nick Holden just aren't going to cut it as far as immediate success. Despite a winning record and pile of high draft picks and promising prospects, this season is in danger of proving that a team simply cannot be competitive without a good defensive core.
What about the up-and-coming defenseman? Stephan Elliott is putting up okay offensive numbers for the Lake Erie Monsters, but is a minus-8. Cam Gaunce was traded away and Barrie has yet to breakout as a true NHLer, with only 3 assists this season, although his defense has been good for the most part. Siemens seems to be taking the long development route and may not be available for a few years. And let's be serious, how much do we really know about Chris Bigras?
Outside of Erik Johnson, and an aging Jan Hejda, I'm not entirely sure if that core has truly been established. It has been a problem presented to the young hockey team time and time again. With almost a refusal from the Front Office to remedy the issue. One can only hope that VPs Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy have something up their sleeve for the deadline, otherwise a lot of fans will start to wonder if we're just waiting for something to fall in our laps.
This Avalanche team isn't bad. The team is winning and is exciting to watch, but real teams play hockey in the late spring. If that is going to happen this season, we're missing a piece on the back end.
Hockey Cliche of the Day: The Honeymoon Period is Over
Tell Me: How do you approach the Defensive Roster for the rest of the season?