The other day, the fine folks over at The Committed Indian asked me some questions about the Avalanche in preparation for Tuesday night's game against the Blackhawks. One of the interrogatives was about how much value we, the fans of the Avs, would place on just making it into the playoffs. It got me thinking.
Leading into the season
There is a general feeling around Avalanche Country that a playoff appearance in and of itself is a marker of success for this season. While that's true, it's really not in the nature of this organization or its fans to accept that as enough. With Patrick Roy at the helm, a Stanley Cup Attitude does not stop at the first round.
Way back at the press conference announcing his roles within the organization, Roy stated unequivocally, "It will be our goal to work together to compete for a Stanley Cup. To all Avalanche fans, rest assured I will bring the same passion to my new role with the team as I did when I was a player." We know that when Roy was a player, nothing short of the best was acceptable. Bradley Karp, a correspondent for Bleacher Report, said it best back in 2009:
Patrick's determination to always be the best, no matter how good or how bad the team in front of him allowed him to continuously improve his game (if not forcing him to). He was never satisfied with his performance and he had an insatiable hunger to be the best. It was even apparent in practice, as any of his ex-teammates would tell you he was just as competitive in practice as he was in a game.
Ask any current player about Roy's attitude as a coach, and they'll tell you it hasn't changed. In interviews throughout the season, player after player talked about the power behind Roy's message to the team: we can and will win. Alex Tanguay, the sole player on the Avalanche who knew Roy as a teammate before experiencing him as a coach, talked with Scott Burnside about the prospect of having a friend as the coach of his new team. "For me, the first few days I was traded, I was actually a little nervous . . . Then I realized Patrick's personality, Patrick would do anything to win games, so I don't think the friendship will be in the way of him winning some games. So I'm happy. I think what we've seen so far from him, he's very intense. He's very passionate about the game. Certainly his intensity and the work that he puts in, it's a good start for us."
Final leg of the regular season
Pundits had a very different season in mind for the Avalanche in 2013-2014. While most folks expected the team to finish in the bottom of the standings once again, the "Why Not Us?" mantra seemed to ignite a passion within the team that now has them sitting comfortably within not just the playoff picture, but the battle for top spot in the division.
Roy himself is a little surprised at the team's current situation, even though he was the one who spear-headed the movement in the first place. From Terry Frei (Denver Post):
"Yes, we didn’t expect to be where we are today," Roy said. "If someone would say to me in September that we’ll be three points behind the Hawks going into the last 21 games, I could say, ‘Where do I sign?’ . . . I’m sure it is a surprise in the world of hockey, and let’s keep it that way and let’s go out there and play hard tonight. We’re in a learning process as a team, we’re learning how to win and how to play hard every night."
But it's that willingness to learn and dedication to playing hard that have given the Avs a fantastic opportunity here. As the standings sit, Colorado would meet up with Chicago in the first round of the post-season. A series between these two teams would produce the type of hockey that becomes "must see TV." The teams' styles are evenly matched, and while the Blackhawks boast a better defense and more playoff experience, the Avs' forward corps continues to be a force. In a pre-game interview, Hawks' coach Joel Quenneville said of the Avs, "They’re a very dangerous team in a lot of ways . . . They’ve come on the scene strong this year . . . We have a lot of respect for that team."
Quenneville isn't the only coach to give the Avs props. Back in December, Darryl Sutter, coach of the Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings, called Duchene "arguably the best player in the NHL right now." Since then, young Nathan MacKinnon has everyone on the other side of center ice afraid. All one needs to do is watch what happens when he gets the puck on his stick.
Add to those stars the other players who are producing close to or more than a point per game since January (Tyson Barrie and Gabriel Landeskog, for example), as well as stellar goaltending with a career-year from Semyon Varlamov, and you have a team poised to finish the season powerfully. In fact, with the offense the Avs are generating right now, surpassing the Blackhawks in the standings is a reasonable proposition. Catching up to St. Louis—an idea once considered a pipe dream—is certainly possible.
All of this fuels the passion for a strong, impressive showing in the playoffs. Home ice advantage? Within reach.
Making the playoffs is nearly a foregone conclusion for the Avalanche at this point. Barring a massive nosedive, we will see post-season action in Colorado. As of 3/4/2014, the team's chances of making the playoffs is 99.98%. During the preseason, the best odds for a playoff appearance for the Avalanche was 20:1. Now, the team has a better chance (18:1) of taking home the biggest prize in sports: the Stanley Cup.
One of the best things about hockey playoffs is that anything can happen. The top-seed doesn't always make the finals, much less win. As the Los Angeles Kings showed in 2012, even an 8th seed can grab the crown. So why not the Avs?
Hockey analysts are on board with the Avs' potential. Kevin Weekes gave his take recently on NHL.com:
Some people consider this team too young, but I don't see why they can't make a playoff run. Duchene had a taste of the playoffs with O'Reilly their first year when they came in and gave San Jose a scare in 2010. Johnson has played internationally, and many of these players have played in World Juniors, World Championships and the Olympics. So they have big-game experience. Because of that, I don't see why they can't make a playoff push. And their coaching staff has a ton of experience in big-game situations.
They've exceeded expectations so far. Why stop now?
The will to succeed is a palpable factor in big accomplishments. Couple that with talent and a belief in oneself and you have a recipe for greatness. The Avalanche have that will, as evidenced by a meteoric rise to the top echelon of the NHL after years of wallowing in the depths. The Avs definitely have talent, clearly seen in the on-ice play and heard in the voices of the team's opponents. Most importantly, this Colorado club absolutely believes in itself and isn't ready to settle.
"Certainly I think we did a great job of putting ourselves in position," captain Gabriel Landeskog said, "but we're not satisfied. We want to win this division. We want to keep climbing."
With the pieces in play in Colorado, one must be prepared for the possibility that a team everyone expected to be a non-factor in the playoffs will become the darlings of it. Anyone who listens to the rumblings in Denver certainly knows that Roy and his team believe they can be.