For the 2nd straight year, the Avalanche will be going into the Christmas break in first place. Last night, Colorado beat up the Vancouver Canucks 3-1 to pull into a first-place tie with Vancouver in the NW division. With the win, the depleted Avalanche improved to 8-3-1 in December, and now have the 4th-best record in the NHL. Not bad for a team with about $17 million worth of salary on the IR.
It's eerily reminiscent of last season, when the Avalanche beat the Blackhawks on the 23rd to pull into first. At that point, the Avs were 6-4 in December and, after some early season inconsistency, seemed to be turning the ship around. With just a few games to go before hitting the month of January - traditionally a strong month for the team - it seemed like there'd be no looking back for the team. Instead, we faltered. The first game after Christmas was a 5-4 loss to Dallas - a game where we squandered a 4-2 lead. We closed out December with two losses to the Blues, dropping us out of first for good.
Frankly, it's tough to picture this team repeating that let down. This is a radically different Avalanche team than the one we started the season with. This is a team that, as Dario put it, is intimidating opponents with it's physical play. We're hitting, forechecking, killing penalties, getting solid defense and goaltending, and, for the first time this year, getting good play from more than one line. With guys like Cody McCormick and Cody McCleod in the lineup instead of Ryan Smyth and Joe Sakic, the team has had to work hard. That hard work is paying dividend.
For the 5th time in his last 6 starts, Peter Budaj kept the opponent off the board in the first period. He didn't have to work all that hard for it - the Avs allowed just 5 first period shots. But they couldn't get anything past Roberto Luongo, so maintaining the 0-0 score was one of the keys to the game.
Marek Svatos opened the scoring at the 3:29 mark of the 2nd period. Cody McLeod and Jaroslav Hlinka started the play off with their solid forechecking work. McLeod got in deep and slammed Vancouver defenseman Lukas Krajicek against the corner boards. Hlinka kept the puck in on the other side, and the Canucks had to scramble. Krajicek got the puck again along the sideboards, and McLeod ran at him again. While he didn't get a solid hit, he did pressure Krajicek into making a bad cross-ice pass. Svatos got to the pass first, and the Avs were on the attack. Svatos skated in and dished it to Hlinka. Hlinka's shot was deflected, but the puck went to an open spot to the side of the net. There was a scramble, but Svatos got there first and pushed it home to get the early 1-0 lead.
Vancouver tied it three minutes later when Tayler Pyatt was able to push home a Byron Ritchie rebound on the PP. It pushed the score back to 1-1, but it would be the last time the Canucks would beat Budaj, despite a huge push towards the end of the 2nd.
The next two goals were for the season-ending highlight reals. The game was still deadlocked midway through the 3rd period when McCormick got the Pepsi Center fans onto their feet with a crushing check on Ryan Kesler into the boards. It was probably the biggest hit by an Avalanche player all year, and you could see the team get energized from it. A minute or two later, the team was still feeding off that energy and the Guite line was back on the ice after a quick rest. Guite and one of the Sedin's was battling for the puck along the boards, and McCormick skated in, grabbed the puck, took a step towards the center of the ice, and ripped a monster past Luongo. The post-goal celebration may have been the most exuberant I've seen from the team this year. That goal put the Avalanche up 2-1, and, in my opinion, will keep McCormick away from Cleveland for a long time.
The Avalanche had one more big goal for us. With Mike Weaver off for delay of game, the Avalanche PP finally converted. John-Michael Liles (who has been excellent in the last two games) fired a shot/pass to Brunette down low. The Vancouver defense was all messed up on this one. Alex Edler was too far away from the net on Bruno's side, and Aaron Miller had to keep an eye on the far side to prevent a pass. That left Brunette all alone in front of Luongo with the puck. He made two or three dekes before burying the biscuit in the top shelf. It was fun to watch. Any thought of a Vancouver comeback went out the window with that goal. They had a couple of chances on Budaj late, but there'd be no looking back. Alain Vignault didn't even bother to pull Luongo.
A couple of names you didn't see mentioned in the recap: Sedin, Sedin and Naslund. For most of the game, they were shut down (just 7 shots). Generally, Quenneville used the Guite line against them along with Karlis Skrastins and Brett Clark. With that line neutralized, the Canucks just didn't have anyone else to generate offense on the night.
Notes can be found here
Similar to what we saw against the Rangers. I have to say, I'm rather fond of all four of these lines.
- Stastny, Wolski, Hejduk
- Hlinka, McLeod, Svatos
- Guite, McCormick, Laperriere
- Hensick, Brunette, Jones
- With the win, the Avalanche are 6 points ahead of where they were through 36 games last year. The highest they've been over the previous year is +7.
- Budaj's numbers during this 6 game stretch: 5-0-1, 1.64 GAA, .940 Save %. During the all-important first period, Budaj had allowed just 1 goal out of 54 shots faced (.981 save %).
- Seven Avs had two or more hits in the game, with McLeod leading the way with 4.
The Avalanche host the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday. I'm told Detroit is sort of good this year.
Merry Christmas, everyone.